In each edition of our newsletter, we like to feature someone who is working to further self-directed learning in some aspect. Ken Danford, North Star’s co-founder, writes about how centres like Compass arepart of larger movement in North America that is growing fast.

As I shook the hand of North Star’s new landlord this week, I told him, with a bit of a twinkle in my eye, that he was now hosting the headquarters for an international movement! He was reasonably amused to learn of this new role in his life. Of course, he is not alone. Most of North Star’s member families and alumni have at best a minor realization of being part of a larger movement. Compass Co-Director Abby Karos reports that most people in the Compass community also don’t fully realize that they are part of a network of sister cen- ters spread across North America, and she has invited to me to provide a clear update on the history and current state of our network. The punch line is that we are clearly more than the sum of our parts and we are active participants in a major cultural trend.

Some History
When Joshua Hornick and I founded North Star in 1996 (then called Pathfinder), we dreamed that someday there might be a centre like ours in every community making school optional for any interested teen. During the first decade of our efforts, we learned two main lessons. The first is that the way in which we were providing support for teens to pursue self-directed learning was both essential and sufficient to make this life-changing ap- proach available to any family in our community. That is, we knew we had a really good idea that we were implementing successfully on our own terms. Sec- ond, we discovered that we could not pay ourselves the salaries we desired, and that we had a long way to grow in order to establish a functional, replicable model for others.

North Star (established in 2002) began to gradually raise its membership fees and take fundraising more seriously. These changes define the second decade of our existence, and our current Board of Directors led by Gary Bernhard now oversees a budget that has ap- proximately tripled during this time.

Meanwhile, our daily happiness with our teens and our program grew as well, and we knew with more certainty than ever that we had an idea to share, even if we didn’t have a full organizational model to match it.

The First Replication Workshop;
Enter Joel Hammon
By 2007, my co-director Joshua and I felt ready to host our first replication workshop. Joel Hammon, from outside of Philadelphia, was among the partici- pants. We had lots to tell these folks about working with teens and parents, but mostly just optimism about how to make membership fees and fundraising fulfill a budget. The moment was a success, and I be- gan taking this information on the road to the AERO conference ( and other meetings. Our message at the time was “Start Right Now!” We suggested that people interested in replicating our model start by coaching one or two teens to embark on homeschooling/unschooling and see how they felt about coaching this process. Joel left our conference energized and in 2010, Joel and co-founder Paul Scutt started The Princeton Learning Cooperative (PLC) and became the first program to deliberately do “North Star” elsewhere.

The success of PLC has been inspiring! We have held annual conferences each summer since 2011, with more and more participants. The next wave of pro- grams included Compass in Ottawa, ON and Beacon in New Haven, CT. The following year brought Open Road in Portland, OR and Open Doors in Grand Rap- ids, MI. Last year generated Bay State Learning in Dedham, MA, Deep Root Center in Canton, NY, and Bucks County Learning Cooperative in Langhorne, PA – an offshoot of PLC. This year we have several new locations in development, including W. Hartford, CT, Holyoke, MA, New Hampshire and, the second centre of this kind in Canada, Halifax, NS.

In 2013, we felt that managing this network merited its own organization, rather than being subsumed as a program within North Star. We (namely Joel!) created Liberated Learners, Inc. (, which is growing rapidly. We maintain a map that identifies the spread of the conversation about our model: We hope that this map will allow for newcomers to our model to discover others near them who share this interest and experience.The growth of Liberated Learners coincides with a worldwide growth in homeschooling and self-directed learning. Independently of our efforts, many students, parents, and educators around the world are questioning the assumed need for schooling and its resulting diploma as the best or required method for learning. We believe that this trend will continue to grow exponen- tially, but that the world needs programs such as ours to make the approach feel usable for most families. North Star was the trailblazer for this model and can now point to hundreds of successful alumni who have gone on to lead fulfilling lives and who credit North Star for being the catalyst that allowed them to “start living right now” (
We hope that Liberated Learners can sup- port the development of programs, provide a support network for those running these programs, and begin to provide some shared services for everyone involved. Liberated Learners, Inc is a non-profit organization, as are its members, and we believe that attract- ing funding and attention to the entire net- work holds enormous potential.Its taken us nearly twenty years to get to this moment. I feel gratified and energized to have collected such impressive colleagues into this process, and I am as eager as all of you to see what we can do in our next twenty years.