Spotlight on the Alternative Education Movement: North Star

I want to highlight various schooling models, one each in short blog posts. I’ll include the type of school it is, where it is, it’s website, an explanation along with my thoughts or maybe/hopefully an interview. Some of them are models that are being used all over the country, some are located in one place, and some are just dreams. But they all have something unique to offer and put an interesting perspective on what needs to change about the current public education system in the United States. I’m going to start with today, highlighting the North Star model.

Center’s using the North Star operate legally as essentially a homeschool activity, one must be registered as a homeschooler (unless they’re over 16) to attend. The original North Star is located in Sunderland MA, but there are now centers all over the country. Because the one I’m familiar with is the one in Sunderland, I’ll speak about that one. But most of this information is true about all of the centers. There are classes offered each day North Star is open (every weekday but Wednesday) that the teens have the option to take. There is a core group of staff that leads classes, along with volunteers from the community. Members are also welcome to come and use the space for personal or group projects and to get one-on-one tutoring with the staff. North Star also mentors the teens in making and accomplishing their goals, exploring opportunities and interests, and helps them through the process of registering as homeschoolers if needed. I get the sense that the North Star model has a structure very similar to that of an ALC, which I’ll cover later on in this series. I interviewed two teens, Ishan and Mat, who attend North Star to find out more about their perspective.


Question: What are you currently taking (just to give a sense of the sorts of classes offered)?

Ishan: I’m in a poetry writing group, a bread baking class, a music history class, the North Star band, and a sub-band. I’m also taking one-on-one writing tutoring as well as guitar lessons.

Mat: I’m only taking one class at the moment, Dance Workshop!


Q: What does an average day look like?

I: I take two classes at my local community college, so my day is a little busier than others at North Star. My day starts at North Star at 8:45. I usually hang out in the common room and socialize for an hour or so, then head to a class for tutorial. At 12:30 I leave to catch a chemistry lecture and come back at 2:30 to hang out or go to a guitar lesson. From there I go the rock gym with a friend until about 7:30 and get home to practice the bass.

M: I get in to North Star noon or later mostly if I have time before a tutorial I’ll usually just wander over to one of the groups in the common room and see what’s up. then I’ll settle in wherever or maybe go outside, depending on what I’m feeling. Then I usually have a tutorial or two which are all an hour long and then I jump right back to the common room! On some days, I’ll walk somewhere to get lunch during the day. At the end of the day, I’ll either go home to rest or work on a costume, or sometimes I take the bus to the rock gym to go climbing.


Q: Do the classes have homework? How similar are they to school classes?

I: They’re pretty different in that the homework load is regulated by you. If you’re looking for more work or a project to take on you can always get more. Instead of working out of a book like you would in a classroom, North Star offers more hands-on learning and discussion based classes.

M: I know some classes do have homework, but the class I’m taking is more “if you have the time or you feel inspired you can do this” kinda thing. Classes I’ve taken in the past have had homework but it’s not usually serious, and if it is that’s exactly what you signed up for and you’re aware of that. As far as similarity to school classes, I’d say there’s next to none. I’ve gone to classes and drawn with crayons wrapped in a blanket discussing how love was represented through art in ancient Greece, classes [where] I sit on the floor and have lively discussion with shouting and swearing (not at anyone, just for emphasis or, more often than not, it’s just how one speaks), and a few classes taught by my peers. It’s a full spectrum, but nothing erring on school.


Q: Does the model seem to work for most attendees?

I: A lot of people come to North Star from a troubled school life but almost all of the graduates get into college or good employment. In terms of their time during North Star, no one’s there that doesn’t want to be. Only people who want to come to North Star come there, which makes for meaningful classes with lots of participation.

M: It’s incredibly rare that the model doesn’t work for someone. I’m not sure I’ve actually seen it happen, but I’ve heard stories.


Q: What is the social scene like?

I: Poppin’. There’s always people in the common room and it is a very accepting group that often breaches age barriers.

M: Everyone gets along with everyone in different ways. there’s no bullying, and problems are dealt with head on, more often than not by members rather than staff. Most people have a lot of friends and spend time with different people, and a lot of connections are built that reach outside of North Star. What someone might perceive as cliques are really just like minded people hanging together, but who often intermingle or welcome newcomers. Most interaction happens in the common room, which is a completely open space, I think that’s why people are able to communicate and bond so freely.


Q: Have you taken advantage of one-on-one tutoring? What for? Was it helpful?

I: One-on-ones are in my opinion the most useful thing offered. I take a writing tutorial and a guitar lesson once a week. If there’s something you want to know, chances are there’s a staff that can teach you, whether that be Japanese, violin, cooking, or vector calculus.

M: Most of my time at north star has been spent utilizing one-on-one tutoring. I’ve had tutorials for math, writing, history, music, and numerous languages. They’ve all been incredibly helpful, inspiring, and encouraging, and aided me in diving into a lot of subjects


Q: What about the more general mentoring? How is that structured and what has your experience been with it?:

I: You’ll get to choose who you want as your advisor, and they’ll help you plan your time there. They help you find out what classes you’d be interested in taking or how to get one-one-ones. It’s a pretty loose structure that you choose yourself, but you are expected not to skip classes whenever you want. If you’re looking for guidance with learning or college, you can always talk to a staff member, but the staff are also there for you on a personal level. It’s a really supportive community and if you open yourself up to them, there’s a lot that you can get back.

M: Everyone at North Star has an advisor they meet with once a week. My experience has been extremely helpful to basically every aspect of my life. I’ve gotten support in finding activities, tutors, colleges, visas, driving classes, and more, along with unending emotional support. I swear my advisor is a Goddess.


Q: Have you had experience with useful/fun/interesting impromptu happenings that made you glad you were at North Star, but not taking a class at that moment?

I: A lot of memorable conversations happen on the couches. At any given moment there’s always a lot of spontaneity that ends with people talking about conspiracy theories on musicians, improvised guitar serenades or the occasional standup comic.

M: Oh heck yeah. A lot of the fun stuff is outside of classes, and my fondest memories are among things that happened in those instances. Although I wasn’t able to go, a tutor last year came into the building and asked if anyone wanted to go protest at Umass at the sit in (I forget what it was for, divest from companies that had stuff to do with fossil fuels?) and I watched about a dozen kids eagerly jump at the opportunity to go stand up for something they believed in. It was also funny watching those kids call their parents starting with, “So mom there’s a small possibility I could get arrested but only if I don’t leave when they tell me too!”


Q: Any last words or things to add? What to sum up a general experience with the program? Or anything else?

I: Whether you’re self motivated or not, North Star can help you get where you want without having to take the mainstream path. I’ve always been quiet, but North Star really helped me form meaningful relationships as well as spark new interests.

M: I’m nearing the end of my second and last year at North Star, and there’s no better decision I’ve made than to come here. I’ve grown so much and it’s all thanks to this community I was welcomed into with open arms.


You can find out more about North Star here, and more about the model itself here. The co-founder of North Star Ken Danford gave a Tedx talk in 2013 which you can view here. Here is a really interesting interview that Blake Boles (check out his stuff! He’s great! His podcast is great!) did with him as well. Are you interested in this series? Do you have any other questions about this model? Know anyone who attends a school based on North Star? Let me know!


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