Principles and questions
that help define North Star's program
For people ready to start a school or a program, we have generated some questions that define North Star. We do not believe that everyone who wants to replicate our model must answer these questions the same way as we have. We can imagine a large degree of flexibility and personal preferences among the founders of various projects. However, there will be some choices that would make a project more like a school and less like North Star.
Note from Ken Danford: Why North Star is Not a School
By the time I resigned my position as a teacher in the Amherst Regional Public Schools, I knew that I did not want to create a new school. I had the growing awareness and understanding that my concerns were with the process of schooling. I wanted to be free from the responsibility of making sure that kids do the things that schools must make kids do.
First and foremost, I wanted to establish a place and a program where people attended voluntarily. I wanted to be free of making sure that people came, that people stayed, and that people participated. I was willing to notice the choices people made, and to discuss these choices with them. However, I was not willing to punish or report people for choosing something else.
In our world of compulsory schooling, attendance matters. Schools, both public and private, satisfy a legal requirement that youth ages 6-16 attend a minimum number of days each year and engage in a minimum number of hours of instruction. If I did not want to take attendance, and certify the fulfillment of this requirement for a teen, then I could not aspire to offering a school.
Second, I wanted to ask people what they wanted to learn and what kind of help they might want from me to pursue that learning. I wanted to accept any answer, including "nothing" or "nothing from you." I also wanted to have people tell me how much of a topic they wanted to learn and when they felt satisfied with their learning. I did not want to have the power to "certify" their learning by providing or withholding credits. Nor did I want to have to power to declare them as having completed enough learning to "graduate" and be prepared for college or the work world. I wanted to establish myself as a coach, not a judge. A basic function of schools is to pass and fail students for each grade or each class, and to provide diplomas as the final approval of completion of the program. Again, if I was unwilling to perform these tasks, I could not aspire to starting a school.
I know that many people interested in starting schools wish to “make a better school” than they have experienced as a student or a teacher. North Star arose from a different sentiment: a wish to create an environment that, for me, would be, “better than a school.”
I wanted to be free of "making sure" of what others did. I wanted teens and parents to understand the history, the reality, and the possibility of learning without school, using homeschooling as the legal mechanism for those under age 16. I wanted to surrender the power the system invested in me as a school teacher or administrator, and empower teens and parents to trust themselves.
Over the years, these ideas have become more clear to me. There is no going back for me to a system where I would have to compel attendance or learning. At the same time, I remain committed to North Star’s motto, “School is optional.” I support my children’s choice to attend school, and I appreciate that most North Star members over the years have had siblings who attend school. School is the right choice for many people, and it may be the right organization for someone else to create. I know that starting North Star has been the right choice for my life’s work, and this website is my effort to share that conviction and inspire others to consider a similar path.
1. North Star makes homeschooling a viable and inspiring option for any interested teen in the Pioneer Valley.
As teachers leaving public school, this was our primary purpose from the start.
2. Getting people out of school vs. services for homeschoolers
We were not homeschooling parents looking to expand a solid homeschooling co-op. We wanted to encourage non-homeschoolers to become homeschoolers.
3. Personal Business vs. Non-Profit Organization vs. Company
It seemed simple to us to be a non-proft, mission-driven project that would have a low fee and turn no one away for financial reasons. We wanted to accept contributions and gifts to support this mission. We were willing to have a Board of Directors hold the organizational power.
Summary: If your mission is to create a school, then you are creating something different from North Star! If your mission is to support teens and families to have an alternative to school, then you will consider in what ways your program will be similar and different to North Star.
1. What are the ages for membership?
Generally, ages 11-18 years old. Some 11-year-olds are now in middle schools that begin in 6th grade. Occasionally we have an 18-year-old turn 19 while at North Star.
2. Does the program accommodate families that cannot afford the fee? How?
Absolutely, welcoming all families is a core commitment. We ask all families to pay what they can afford, and then to submit a “Proposal for Alternative Contributions” to a committee of the Board of Directors. These families are expected to generate fundraisers, solicit help, or work at North Star to complete these agreements. Straight scholarships are reserved for extreme circumstances.
3. Does the program welcome all applicants? Are there any behavioral or learning issues that would be grounds for exclusion?
North Star welcomes all interested teens. We have not excluded anyone for prior behaviors or potential difficulties. North Star reserves the right to terminate a membership when the staff feels unable to serve a teen productively or if a transgression against North Star cannot be resolved.
Summary: North Star aims to be widely accessible and have no admissions policy other than "first-come first-served." Your choices will determine how similar or different your program is to North Star.
Use of the Program:
1. How many days per week is the program available? How frequently does each member attend?
North Star is open four days per week. Our standard membership is three days per week. Some members attend all four days. Others attend just one or two days per week.
2. What is mandatory? What is expected?
No classes or activities are mandatory at North Star. We do have one weekly Community Meeting for thirty minutes. All teens present that day must attend Community Meeting.
North Star expects its members to use our classes, tutoring, advisory services, and general program on a case-by-case basis. We have no assumptions about how a teen must participate. However, North Star expects teens to be forthright and honest about their use of the program.
All teens sign a Community Agreeement contract which states that teens must be kind and respectful of others and that we are all committed to establishing a welcoming space. Teens may not bring drugs or illegal substances to North Star and they may not be in the building while under the influence of drugs.
Generally, members who develop meaningful relationships with the staff through classes and tutorials are the ones who thrive the most. Teens who do not connect with the staff tend to be the shortest-duration members.
3. Are any outcomes required? Does the program keep or manage portfolios?
North Star does not require its members to complete projects of any kind. The staff does fully support the teens to identify goals and follow-through on them. Teens do complete projects with staff support. North Star does not hold or manage portfolios. The staff does keep notes on the frequent advisory meetings between teens and staff, and North Star generates monthly reports for each standard member. North Star staff frequently serve as references for its members seeking college admissions and jobs.
4. What role do parents have inside the program?
In general, parental involvement is essential to a teen’s healthy progress, whether that progress is happening in a school or through homeschooling.
Parents create requirements and limits for their children. Parents work with teens to establish goals and evaluate whether genuine progress is being made. Parents communicate their joys and frustrations to North Star staff. They help their children find work and volunteer possibilities outside of North Star. They provide transportation as needed. They set the budget limits for their teens regarding non-North Star activities. Most North Star parents do little direct teaching of their children.
5. What is the decision-making process? How much are teens involved with establishing the rules?
Teens have direct access to all staff, and their input is valued. However, North Star is not a democratic free school. Some decisions are made by the staff, or by the Board of Directors. Some decisions, where the adults sincerely feel flexible, may be made at the North Star weekly Community Meeting with teen participation.
Summary: North Star teens and parents each use the program in their own way, just as adults use health clubs, community centers, and country clubs.There is never a planned moment in which all members or parents are present. One can imagine other projects that may have more required participation or outcomes. If these requirements are minor, they are simply a noted difference from North Star. If these requirements are extensive, the program would be different from North Star, and closer to a school from our perspective.
Use of the Space
1. Can teens choose to be present without participating in an activity?
Yes. In fact, for some teens, simply being at North Star with no fixed agenda is a more important challenge than attending a class.
2. Can teens be in rooms without adults? Are there limits on the use of the space?
Yes, teens are frequently together in spaces without adults at North Star. We do have some limits on the use of space. Currently, we require all socializing to be conducted on the first floor of our building.The second floor is for classes, tutorials, and quiet, independent space.
While North Star welcomes fun and games and loud music and other activity, we do expect a reasonable amount of mutual respect and cooperation. One’s activities may not impede others.
3. Can teens come and go? Leave at will?
Yes, teens are always free to come and go from North Star. Staff is generally aware of who is present, but there is no official sign-in or sign-out procedure.
4. How do teens and staff resolve conflict inside the space?
North Star has an annoyance policy. When someone feels annoyed by another person’s behavior, they may ask that person to stop that behavior. If they are unable to solve the problem alone, the person feeling annoyed may call an "annoyance meeting." Both people must stop what they are doing and meet with a North Star staff member to resolve the situation. If either teen refuses to attend the meeting, that teen must leave North Star and will not be welcome to return until they have this meeting.
These meetings generally achieve a mutually satisfactory solution. The meetings do not presume that the annoyed person is in the right. Annoyance meetings are also used to resolve conflicts between staff and teens.
When a consistent pattern of conflict emerges, the topic is normally addressed at our weekly community meeting with the large group.
Historically, North Star has hosted plenty of minor conflicts but extremely few fights or major conflicts. We see conflict management and resolution as one of the strengths of our community.
5. How does the program respond when the rules are broken?
When a rule is broken, staff meet with teens to find out what has happened. When the situation is serious, involving hostilities, drugs, or some other breach of trust, staff will ask the teen to leave for the remainder of the day. Staff call the teen’s parents, and the next step is for a meeting to be held with the teen, the parents, and at least two North Star staff members. Teens may not return to normal participation at North Star until this meeting is held and everyone feels satisfied with the outcome.
Summary: North Star operates with a very high degree of trust for its teen members to use the space responsibly. Other programs may need or choose to limit some of this freedom. Such limits would not turn a program into a school. However, we have seen teens highly value this sense of trust and contrast it to how they have felt in school.
1. How much do staff schedule and initiate activities?
The staff put together the calendar. Most of the classes on the calendar are initiated by staff or adults.
2. How involved do staff get with personal, non-academic issues?
The staff are very involved with personal, non-academic issues. In fact, North Star staff tend to blur the distinction between what is academic and what is non-academic. For instance, staff are curious about why a teen is eager to learn a particular topic, and whether the teen has ever expressed such a desire to learn something before. When learning doesn’t happen according to a teen’s declared goals, North Star staff are interested in understanding what might be happening. A thorough exploration of goals, obstacles, and personal vision become naturally very personal conversations.
3. Does the program encourage and facilitate teens to become involved in the community?
Yes, North Star encourages its members to pursue internships, volunteer work, and paid jobs in the community. We believe that much of the growth and maturity we wish for our teens will occur in these sorts of activities outside of North Star. Staff may offer specific suggestions of people and organizations for a teen to contact. Sometimes, staff will make the first contact on behalf of a teen or even accompany a teen on their first visit.
4. How does the staff communicate with parents?
North Star staff are frequently in touch with parents. There are informal opportunities, such as when a parent is dropping off or picking up their child at North Star. Otherwise, staff frequently use email and phones to contact parents. Also, staff mail a monthly "support report" to parents detailing North Star staff’s involvement with and awareness of the teen’s activity each month.
North Star schedules three meetings per year with each family, and beyond that, North Star staff are accessible and ready to attend to each parent’s needs as much as possible.
Summary: North Star is a staff-driven organization. In this sense, North Star be more similar to a school than a parent-organized homeschooling cooperative.
End of Membership
1. In what circumstances might the program terminate a membership?
North Star has terminated very few memberships in fifteen years. We may terminate a membership when trust has been broken and we have no mutually agreeable way to work on restoring trust. We may also terminate a membership when we feel that a teen is not benefiting from our program despite our best efforts, and that the teen’s presence is having a negative influence on the rest of our community.
2. Does the program recognize teens who are moving on in any formal or informal way?
North Star has a very minor moment of recognizing teens at the end of the year who we know will not be returning in the fall. However, North Star does not offer diplomas, and it has no process resembling a graduation.
Summary: Teens move on from North Star when they declare themselves ready for the next phase of their lives. This moment happens at different ages for different teens. We know that teens do not need our credits or approval to move on successfully, and we do not require any formal presentation by a student to demonstrate that they are ready to do so. The idea of North Star judging a teen’s readiness or conferring its approval on a teen would be contrary to every other aspect of North Star.
1. Message, Vocabulary: homeschooling, unschooling, self-directed learning, dropping out
North Star’s use of vocabulary has changed over the years. Various staff members have held different personal preferences. We all agree that North Star is not a school! We know that homeschooling is the legal mechanism teens must use to leave school if they are under age 16 in Massachusetts. We are comfortable with the ideas of unschooling, but generally view unschooling as one method of homeschooling rather than as an entirely different process. We encourage teens to avoid the use of the phrase “dropout” as it has so many negative connotations in our culture. We encourage teens to say they are homeschooling, or that they don’t attend school, or that they have finished attending school.
2. Methods: paid advertising: radio, newspaper; word of mouth; visibility; events
Most of our members arrive because of word-of-mouth and because we now have a building with a large sign at a busy intersection. We have utilized some paid advertising, but it is very hard to measure the value of those expenditures. We work hard to meet people in the community who work with teens and families. We also make serious efforts to be visible to the general public.
3. Budget: Whose job?
The budget has largely been the job of the Executive Director, with some limited oversight from the Board of Directors. Recently, the Treasurer of the Board has taken more initiative in establishing the budget with the Executive Director.
Summary: North Star’s core staff has mostly been consumed with its direct work with members and families. We now have a full-time outreach director working on marketing and promotional materials. We also have a Board of Directors more actively involved both with marketing and with the budget. One lesson of North Star’s first fifteen years is that it is essential to have some full-time attention paid to marketing, promotions, and the budget by people who are not the core staff focused on serving the current members.
This has been the task of the Executive Director.With some support from other staff members, bookkeeping will probably remain with the Executive Director for a few more years.
Devising a cleaning system without hiring a janitor has been one of the most pressing daily problems at North Star. Every day we need to clean our space. Currently, we offer cleaning as one of the tasks teens and families unable to pay the full fee may do as a way to make a significant contribution to North Star. This system works well most of the time. However, maintaining a reasonably clean space continues to be an ongoing issue.
North Star enjoys a lovely relationship with its landlord, the Town of Hadley. The Town takes initiative to maintain our building and premises. Beyond that, the staff deals with small tasks of daily maintenance. Some maintenance could become the valued contribution of a family unable to pay the full fee. However, maintenance issues have a way of requiring urgent attention, and therefore frequently become the responsibility of the core staff.
North Star spends a very small portion of its budget on educational materials. We encourage teens to use the excellent public library system as much as possible. Teens and families frequently possess the items they need. Short-term consumable items such as art supplies and food for cooking classes are exceptions. North Star spends as necessary for office supplies and promotional materials.
Summary: Running a small non-profit requires all sorts of skills. It is important for people starting a program to honestly assess their own capabilities and to create a team of people with the range of knowledge, energy, and talents needed to sustain a project.