SCHOOL IS OPTIONAL!
A welcome from Ken Danford
Many of us sometime wonder whether what we learn in school really matters, and whether our school record will truly be the determining factor in our future success. I first seriously questioned schooling as a teacher, after an all-honors high school and college academic experience. Since I resigned my teaching job in 1996 and started North Star, I have learned a tremendous amount about how teens can learn and thrive outside of school, and how open our mainstream culture is to people who choose to do so. This website is my effort to share what I have learned during this time. I hope that some people who are thinking about starting a school will consider our model, and feel moved by its simplicity and power. I hope that some donors interested in education reform and alternative models will find these ideas inspiring and worthy of support. I hope that policy makers will take a moment to consider the implications of the information we have to share. The possibilities are grand.
I welcome the support of North Star’s staff and Board of Directors on this site. North Star is thriving as a team, and these stories and ideas belong to all of us. In fact, the ideas belong to the wider homeschooling community and to the many people who have written and spoken about them to challenge compulsory schooling over the past century.
I also welcome the participation of Joel Hammon of the Princeton Learning Cooperative and others who are currently establishing their own versions of our model in their own communities. Their vision and progress fills me with hope that North Star’s success may touch teens in communities far beyond my own.
It is one thing to know that school is optional; it is another thing to make is so for ordinary families. Supporting teens to leave school and use homeschooling to improve their lives is an original idea.
When Joshua Hornick and I resigned our teaching positions in the Amherst Regional Junior High School in 1996 to launch the program we then called Pathfinder Learning Center, we had no models to follow; we simply figured that “If we build it, they will come.”
We had learned enough about the homeschooling world to know that this method of learning was valid, successful, and inspiring. We were aware of sophisticated homeschooling co-ops and of a fascinating body of literature detailing the experiences and methods of homeschoolers in the 1980s and 1990s. As disillusioned junior-high school teachers, we dreamed of working with teens who were as open, motivated, and mature as the homeschooling teens we were reading about, and even meeting in our local community. On a daily basis, we saw some teens in our classrooms who were bored, or unhappy, or constrained, or miserable. We worried that our involvement with them--and our school’s well-intentioned program--would not lead to any significant changes. We said to ourselves, “Some of our students really need to be homeschooling.” It wasn’t long before we added, “and we need to be out there with them!”
We also knew that the idea of homeschooling was scary for the majority of mainstream families, and something that most of our public school students and parents would never consider seriously as a possibility for themselves.
Strongly motivated by a desire to improve our own lives, Joshua and I proceeded logically and quickly. We knew that we could not work with existing homeschoolers to make a living: they didn’t particularly need us or want us, and the homeschooling culture did not support paying outside experts full salaries. We were moved by the idea of saving our public school students while saving ourselves. We would leave public school in a way that would make it possible for any interested teen to leave with us. Further, this possibility would be true for teens not just in our own school, but for all the teens in our local community. Our choice would make leaving school a positive option for thousands of teens, immediately.
Fifteen years later, here we are--in our third location, a beautiful large building in Hadley, MA. We have:
- a core staff of six incredible people, along with an extended group of volunteers and work-study students who provide a strong and vibrant program.
- Our largest beginning-of-the-year membership ever, over sixty teens
- A strong Board of Directors, and
- A budget over $300,000 and growing.
We also have hundreds of alumni stories, each one profound it its own way. We have interest throughout the United States and Canada in our model, with some intrepid pioneers starting their programs right now.
“School is optional” is more than a slogan. It is a fact. School is optional for learning. School is optional for success. School is optional as a place to attend and spend one’s teen years.
The possibility of changing a teen’s fundamental assumption of his or her life, that they must attend school until they graduate from high school at age 18, fills me with passion and joy. If this message thrills you, too, then explore this site and contact me with your thoughts.