Over 20 years ago, Kenneth Danford started North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens, currently located in Sutherland, Massachusetts. Even before I began my homeschooling journey, I would see the tagline on bumper stickers: “Learning is Natural; School is Optional.” That tagline, which is the title of Danford’s new book, made me question what I thought I knew about education.
In many ways, that is what Danford wants us to do. A former social studies teacher, he began North Star to give middle and high school students an alternative to traditional school. The students who attend this program are legally considered homeschoolers. While it was never intended to be a haven for those already homeschooling, many homeschoolers have also taken advantage of its classes, one-on-one tutorials, and community projects. It offers educational challenges and social interaction that independent homeschooling may not provide.
Based on an unschooling model, there are no attendance requirements. Students do have an advisor to help them but are encouraged to pick classes that interest them. They are also encouraged to engage with the world at large. North Star operates on the belief that young people want to learn and that learning happens everywhere, not just in school. They start by “asking students what they want to accomplish, rather than assign them tasks.” Learning is Natural; School is Optional describes the history of North Star, the challenges of this sort of educational model, and what North Star alumni have gone on to accomplish.
Danford encourages others to create similar learning centers through the Liberated Learners program. Catherine Gobron, a former Program Director at North Star, started such a program. She and Josiah Litant founded LightHouse Holyoke, a program that one of my sons attended twice a week for two years. It was a positive experience. I continue to offer financial support to LightHouse because it offers a much-needed alternative to public education. These learning centers have the potential to change the lives of students who are not thriving in a traditional school system. The challenge, as with most non-profit educational institutions, is to have the monetary resources to run such a program at a price that parents can afford.
I’ve often wondered if it would be possible to have a Catholic program that would operate on a similar premise, providing a haven for those who want to homeschool but can’t, as well as a place for homeschooled teens to grow and thrive when they want something more than independent homeschooling. While there are currently homeschool co-ops and hybrid programs, this type of center provides a five day a week option for those who need it.
Learning is Natural; School is Optional is interesting reading for anyone interested in alternative methods of education.