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by Ken Danford, Executive Director

The highlight for me of our busy winter was our recent music festival, North Stars!, held at Hawks & Reed in Greenfield on a snowy night in late February. Under the leadership of John Sprague, we successfully converted years of idle talk about hosting a music concert for the community into a smoothly implemented and inspiring showcase of our current members and alumni! The first act featured the North Star Band, another current member band called Tropical Hot Sauce, and Zoki, a rising youth band that includes current North Star member Kim Chin-Gibbons. The second act featured two of our most well-known alumni, blues musician Eli Catlin and jazz pianist Miro Sprague, and then a dazzling finale of the entire ensemble. If you missed it, fear not! We hope this event becomes a new part of our annual celebrations.

Another special event of the winter was the community service trip to Québec City, in which Loran and Max Saito took a group of ten North Star teens on a cross-cultural adventure. There is a report from the trip later in this newsletter.

Meanwhile, North Star’s weekly routine has been filled with a fun and interesting range of courses this winter, including Essential Shelter (look for the photo in this issue!), Future of the World, Earth and Sky, Harm and Punishment, Sex is a Funny Word, Local History Explorations, Lunch, American Sign Language, Upcycle Your Clothing, History and Myths, Herbalism, and Hi-SET Prep, among others. We’ve also had a weekly volunteering slot at the Amherst Survival Center, and thanks to parent Jen Abromowitz, a weekly ski group at Mt. Snow. In addition, we have had thirty or more tutorials per day for our members on topics such as math, guitar, piano, art, Spanish, Korean, personal finance, and much more. 

North Star has also enjoyed hosting some visitors, including Blake Boles, a self-directed learning proponent and close friend of the program. Blake interviewed North Star teens and released a podcast. He also wrote an article explaining the similarities and differences among three currently growing models in self-directed education. You can find both the podcast and the article on blakeboles.com. Then, in February and March, North Star welcomed Cassidy Younghans, who resigned her public school teaching job after five years in Dallas, Texas, and is spending the year doing serious participant-research on the various centers and approaches Blake described in his article. Cassidy is now a world-class expert with first-hand experience on the options in self-directed learning programs and schools. We wish her well as she heads back to Texas to share her experiences and encourage more experimentation in her community.

I have been spreading the word about North Star as well. In January I contributed an article to the Alliance for Self-Directed Education’s blog about how we manage conflict resolution at North Star, called “In the Moment: Managing Conflict at North Star.” I spoke about our Liberated Learners network for the national online AEROx conference in February, and I have committed to attending the national AERO conference (Alternative Education Resource Organization) this summer in Portland, OR. That conference will feature the premiere of the Jeremy Stuart’s documentary, Self-Taught, which includes some filming at North Star. Also, my own book will indeed be a book by then: Learning is Natural, School is Optional: The North Star Approach to Offering Teens a Head Start on Life. Stay tuned!

Locally, our Outreach Director Jodi Cutler has been organizing a full schedule of fantastic events for us to talk about our model, including a meeting with the new Greenfield Community College President Yves Salomon-Fernandez and a series for local business people called “Lunch and Learn!”. See Jodi’s report in this issue for more.

My daily work still involves welcoming new members at North Star, and I have rejoiced in the ongoing flow of phone calls, initial meetings, and visits that result in our surge of new members. We appreciate your referrals and kind words out in the community that encourage families needing an alternative to school to call North Star.

As always, nothing keeps us focused on our work like a good story. In this issue, we hear from Aidan Wilburn and his parents. Aidan is a relatively mild-mannered fellow at North Star who happens to have a very serious and committed academic pursuit taking place at all times: he is learning more than five languages this year. Aidan’s story of needing something different from school, and then discovering an insatiable passion to pursue, may feel familiar to those of you who have followed North Star over the years. I’ll just say that familiar can also equal inspiring, and it’s working with young people such as Aidan that keeps me going! Enjoy.