Several years ago, few people who knew Hannah Noblewolf would have thought that she would turn out to be an outgoing, articulate, self-assured young woman who has successfully completed her first year at her top-choice college.
For years, she struggled with social anxiety, depression and, as a result, school. She had always been bright -- she even skipped fourth grade -- but her intellectual acuity, paired with being younger than her classmates, made her school life deeply unpleasant. Noblewolf comes from a highly educated, upper-middle-class family where academic success was not up for discussion. Neither she nor her parents would ever have believed that dropping out of school would be what was best for her.
“I couldn’t get out of bed,” Noblewolf said of her junior year in high school. “I made it to school for a full day maybe twice every two weeks.”
Skipping fourth grade because of her academic prowess had put Noblewolf in a toxic social situation. She was bullied for being smart and admits she would intentionally fail advanced placement tests so her classmates wouldn’t make fun of her. By the time she was halfway through high school she had developed Tourette Syndrome and obsessive compulsive disorder. She was extremely unhappy. Then she found North Star, an alternative learning center in Massachusetts that lets teens direct their own learning.
“My parents were really nervous; they thought I was ruining my future,” Noblewolf said.
North Star is one of several learning centers around the country that don’t mandate any curriculum and lets teens pick and choose how to spend their time. Each student has an individual mentor and, once a year, each kid gives a presentation on something she’s been working on. But that’s pretty much where the requirements stop. The program doesn’t give out diplomas, so if a student wants to go on to college, which many do, he or she takes the GED and can use a portfolio to demonstrate learning to colleges.
For Noblewolf, this freedom reignited her academic self. Far from doing nothing with her days (a common fear when discussing free choice for high school students), she dove into classes on everything from French to drama.
“My time was occupied in a way I was comfortable with, but at the same time, I had more time to explore my interests,” she said.
She spent more time outside, her relationship with her family improved and she started taking community college classes. She became interested with linguistics and wrote a long research paper on language roots and etymology. No formal paper was required, but she got excited about what she was discovering.
Noblewolf isn’t the only one with a story like this. Teens like her across the country are struggling to get through school, unaware that there are other options, believing that school is a shared but hated experience that everyone must get through until their real lives can start. Of course, there are also teens who love school and thrive there. Other kids don’t get much out of school academically, but enjoy the social interactions, sports and the feeling of being a “normal kid.”
But how many, like Noblewolf, are suffering through at the expense of their mental health?
“Choosing not to go to school is a big deal; it’s terrifying,” said Ken Danford, executive director of North Star. “Something like North Star helps them embrace it.”
Danford started the center almost 20 years ago after a short career as a public middle school teacher. The history he taught just didn’t seem important next to the apparent unhappiness of the students he saw. So he quit and started North Star. He sees it as the helping hand that some parents need to choose a different path from traditional school.
“Everyone wants their kids to succeed in school; everyone is trying to make it work,” Danford said.
Often it takes years for parents and their kids to give up on the system, and along the way there can be a lot of blame and pain. Families worry that kids can’t learn without school telling them to. New students often worry that when given freedom, they will do nothing, learn nothing. Danford says that almost never happens.
It is common, however, for a kid who has been in traditional school for most of his life to show up and do very little for a month or two. He might play video games or sit on his own, refusing to join in activities. That’s fine with Danford. Taking “no” as a legitimate answer from a student is a big part of letting kids take ownership over their own lives. Eventually, though, most kids get bored with playing video games and decide to join something.
“The real work is adult relationships with kids,” Danford said. Each North Star teen has a mentor who checks in weekly and helps think through the things he or she wants to achieve. “What’s really happening is that we’re helping kids reorient themselves to the world, to learning in general as a practice, and we’re reorienting them towards adults that are cool, interesting people,” he said.
Mentors help kids think of internships or outside resources they might tap for further learning or suggest existing classes or tutorials being offered. North Star operates on a sliding scale membership fee based on need. Some families pay $7,500 for a full membership, meaning their child attends every day. Other kids mix North Star with homeschooling and pay only a partial membership. Danford says they've never turned a kid away who couldn't pay.
North Star is not for everyone. Plenty of students have left, deciding they wanted a more “normal” school experience. Others can’t take advantage of what the center offers because they are so distrustful of adults that the mentoring relationship never takes off, according to Danford.
“I’m describing a kid who has become so distrustful of adults at school that they can’t get over it and they can’t adjust to the possibility that we want to treat them differently than every other adult has,” Danford said.
Below, Jonah Meyer speaks about how and why he acted out in traditional school. He also discusses his path at North Star and his discovery of chemistry as a passion to pursue into college. There's a moment around 9:20 when he describes realizing he could "do school" under the right conditions.
Danford’s own two children went to traditional public schools, despite having parents who would have been more than happy to embrace an alternative route. “Even though they like going to school, they don’t see learning as valuable or meaningful,” Danford said. “They like going to school because everyone is there.” He’s willing to let them make that choice for themselves, but thinks they’ve learned a lot more at summer camp than they have in school.
“I feel like school can work for people, but it’s not a universal fit,” Noblewolf said. “There’s this mold, and whether you fit or not they’re going to try to push you through it.”
In the video below, hear from Ramon Elinevsky, who was among the first members of North Star (then called Pathfinder) when it began in 1996. Now an adult finishing his Ph.D., Elinevsky reflects on his choice to leave school after eighth grade to pursue self-directed learning. Recorded at North Star's Celebration of Self-Directed Learning in April 2011.
Teens at North Star and other alternative learning centers speak insightfully about how reflection is a bigger part of their learning experience when they choose what to pursue.
“A big problem of mine was that high school was seven hours a day, class after class after class, and you have no say in it,” said Sara Webber, a teen now attending the Princeton Learning Cooperative, another center in the Liberated Learners network.
Sara found that in traditional school, her learning didn’t reflect her grade. She learned a lot in some classes where she didn’t do the work and got poor grades, but often had good grades in classes where she hadn’t learned much, which made her doubt the system. She, like Noblewolf, was suffering from social anxiety and was often missing most of her classes while she tried to calm down in the nurse’s office. She’s much happier at Princeton Learning Cooperative.
At the cooperative, Sara took an evolutionary biology class that rekindled a middle school interest in marine biology and was able to meet two prominent biologists at Princeton University. She’s discovered a passion for sustainability and started a recycling program that takes almost any waste, from plastic baggies to granola bar wrappers. She’s reading "Harry Potter" in French and writing a 30-page paper rhetorically analyzing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, “We Should All Be Feminists.”
All these passions are documented and collected in a learning portfolio, similar to what homeschoolers do. Students can use these artifacts to demonstrate work they have done to prospective employers and college admissions officers. And many of these learners have gone on to college if that’s what they wanted. To Danford, allowing teens to start figuring out early on who they are and what makes them tick is the most important thing a center like North Star offers.