"Any kid today could be done with school tonight and out of school tomorrow." - Ken Danford

Are you a parent wondering what a life without school might look like?

Maybe the school system just isn't working for your child anymore, and you are curious about alternative schooling?

The world of alternative education is alive with possibility, and there are so many options available that you are sure to find one that suits your family.

The concept of an alternative to school is not a new one, as Ken Danford told us at our recent Clubhouse inspirEd event. Ken is the founder of North Star Teens, an alternative school designed to offer teens a way out of the traditional school system and escape rigid learning requirements.

Along with the Liberated Learners Network, Ken is passionate about creating spaces for children to live and learn with freedom.

His methods may have seemed unconventional in 1996 when North Star started. Yet, the discussions around education and the need for learning opportunities outside of a classroom have become a focal point for many families and teachers.

There is always a moment that makes you question your choices

There is a misconception that families choose to live without school because they had a bad experience in the education system.

Ken enjoyed his time in the school system, saying, "I was a good student. I did well, and I was quite involved with the whole scene as a high school kid, which largely explains why I went on to become a teacher because I had very positive feelings for my own schooling".

Only when Ken began teaching did he start to question the traditional education system saying, "it was rigid, not just for kids, but for adults as well."

It wasn't until Ken read the book The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn that he began to picture a completely different philosophy.

"That book just described a whole culture of kids who weren't doing school at home homeschooling and introduced me to the concept that people could thrive without school, just living their lives."

Credit to @learninganotherway

We need to redefine our idea of 'school'

More and more families are questioning the validity of the education system as we know it. They are also asking whether or not it is the right fit for them anymore.

Maybe you are one of those families?

Ken could imagine something new, something different, and something student-centered but says, "we had very few models and few to zero colleagues or mentors."

But that is changing!

Microschools, hybrid schools like Galileo's dojos, homeschool collectives, online schools, and self-directed education centers are popping up worldwide. Ken has been doing this for a long time, and he says that there is more support and more resources available now.

"A lot of people have thought of more clever ways to do things, and there's just a whole set of people and a whole give and take. So it's glorious right now".

And that is the sentiment shared by so many people who believe that we can and should redefine what schools look like. We have the opportunity to reimagine how we think about education and how children should be learning.

North Star Teens education: An alternative to school

Ken describing a scene from North Star beautifully captures the magic of self-directed education.

"Kids are doing their own thing in a semi-random looking way, but there seems to be some organization and adults aren't paying much attention but are kind of around and what is this place anyway?"

We have this idea that learning has only happened if you can see it, prove it, or test it. What Ken describes sounds nothing like learning from the outside. At least not learning in the traditional sense.

No one was sitting at a desk furiously taking notes or, even worse, watching the teacher with a blank and dazed expression.

But Ken says, "We offer more in terms of a schedule and calendar and tutorials, and every teen here has a weekly advisory."

Self-directed education shouldn't be synonymous with no structure. It just means the students determine what that structure looks like.

Self-directed education is a collaborative process

North Star operates four days a week, and kids can choose how much time they spend there. This allows students with different family dynamics to be a part of the program.

Sometimes unschooling or homeschooling is not an option, so something like North Star or other hybrid or micro-schools allows families to leave the school system.

"Usually a parent calls in and says my kid doesn't like school because mostly we are dealing with school kids who don't go to school anymore. Mostly they're not existing homeschooling families".

They have weekly community meetings, and a staff member meets with each child weekly to connect. They also meet with the parents three times a year to "compare notes about what everybody's seen and making sure everybody's on the same page on what's happening or what's not happening."

But Ken says that North Star is not meant to be anything like school.

"I don't have to be in charge of them or report their learning or have credits or grades to withhold or give diplomas that I don't have. You don't need any of those things. It's empowering not to need them. It's empowering to believe that you can decide for yourself what to learn and how much to learn. And that's really what we're about".

Liberated Learners Network

The Liberated Learners Network has a consulting wing for helping other people create an alternative school like North Star.

"And so our consulting with these people is mostly about a business plan and building a team and a network and having a vision for the first number of years to build something that's going to be sustainable."

Creating alternative learning spaces that are available to more students should be the goal of education moving forward.

"The second wing is among the dozen centers that are open. We offer mutual support, and our kids can do online activities with each other."

North Star is primarily an in-person program, but everyone has had to adjust to the new restrictions Covid imposed. Working co-operatively with other alternative learning centers means that students still benefit from connecting with peers, albeit online.

What does learning look like at North Star?

There are classes and groups of all ages that meet, and "we do encourage kids to be reliable and predictable" if they have signed up for a class, but the students choose how they want to structure their days. Small classes are just as valued, and students have free access to technology.

Technology is something that many parents have issues with and aren't sure how to address with their teens. Ken says, "there's been no real need to regulate it at all," which just goes to show that when kids have autonomy in their decision-making, they will more often than not make good choices.

North Star has evolved over the years and has become more professional, but Ken says that they got the tone right from the beginning.

"The idea of helping kids live without school and have few requirements, including attendance and not offering them diplomas, not offering them credits, and telling them you don't need these things from us to carry on with your life. We were right about that at the beginning; we're still right about that. We don't compromise on that stuff".

What are the benefits of an alternative school?

Alternative education offers students the opportunity to gain knowledge and skills in a meaningful way. When students can take control of their learning rather than being taught, the subject becomes tangible, and learning happens naturally.

Traditional school is not always a healthy learning environment for students, and Ken says, "just telling someone who's stressed out and bothered by schooling that you don't have to go back, just let go of the place and stop going to a place that makes you stressed, bothered and crazy. That's a really healthy first step".

As Ken mentioned, the number of families and teachers searching for other education options is growing. More platforms are available to help families find learning freedom, and there is more innovation and integration than ever before.

"There are people who are trying to offer activities to existing homeschoolers as one thing but trying to empower or explain or encourage or support others to become homeschoolers is a little bit different. And I feel like you guys, Galileo, are totally aligned with that goal of trying to explain and support people that aren't already homeschooling, showing them that it is accessible and doable".

Like Ken says in his book, 'learning is natural, school is optional'

This is such an exciting time to be raising kids because there is a real alternative to school available out there for families wanting freedom and fun.

Our children are learning all the time, and we need to give them the space to do it. We need to provide them with opportunities to play and explore and find the things that spark their curiosity.

There is a good chance that a life without school can offer them that!

If this has ignited your interest, then join one of our next events at inspirEd.

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