The UnCollege Blog

A Smarter Way to Learn: Personalizing Education for Teens

The following is a blog post by Catherine Gobron, Co-founder of Lighthouse Teens.


The educational tide is turning. Everywhere you hear backlash against testing and standardization, meanwhile the challenges in schools are increasingly glaring. In many cases, even the teachers don’t want to be there. On April 23 The Huffington Post Education Blog asked teachers on Facebook if they would recommend the profession to their own children. Hundreds of people responded- 95% of them negatively.

"The respect and the benefits given to teachers in past years has gone down considerably. Now teachers are forced to be evaluated on criteria that is beyond their control. No assistance is provided to assist with higher degrees. Teacher integrity is challenged by the media, parents and their own school systems. More is demanded and less support is given. And on top of that, the textbook and testing companies and politicians control what is taught."

Comment after comment like that.

It is a tough time to be a teacher, and it is a tough time to be a student. We owe it to each other to create some new ways of working together.

I’ve been working with North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens in Hadley, MA as Program Director for the last 12 years. It has been an incredible experience. Hundreds of teens have used our program to launch lives that feel meaningful and interesting to them. North Star is a place where both students and teachers attend voluntarily, and we love to be there. During my years here we have grown from a small program to an international movement, and North Star now supports the development of new centers using this model. There are now 10 programs in North America using the North Star model, and in September I’m leaving North Star to open LightHouse Personalized Education for Teens in Holyoke, MA. ( LightHouse will be the 11th program in the Liberated Learners network. (

Holyoke is a small city, facing the same host of serious challenges found in many urban areas across the country. Holyoke has a 40% drop out rate. While the population is about 50% white Irish and 50% Puerto Rican, there has been extreme white flight in the schools, leaving the public schools more than 80% Latino and largely low income. The schools are attended by many students who are dealing with a lot of the challenges that often accompany poverty- domestic violence, teen pregnancy, addiction, homelessness. Many do not arrive at school ready to learn, to say the least. Many struggle, become disengaged, and leave school with few positive prospects. 40% of them.

Our goal at LightHouse is not to solve the drop out rate, nor is it to work solely with teens who have dropped out, though we are looking forward to working with some. Our goal is to address the pervasive issues of apathy, disconnectedness, and low expectations that plague young people in and out of school. The goal is empowerment. Make your life, and the world, how you want it to be, because you can, and we will help you.

Keeping kids in school is not nearly enough. Attached to an educational program is usually better than unattached, of course, and dropping out with no support is definitely a hard road. But managing to show up enough times in order to graduate is quite a low bar. Our bar is much higher. Dig in. Live life. Do something that feels meaningful to you. We’ll help you.

We will work with about 45 teens at a time. Will this make a statistical difference in the dropout rate in Holyoke? Maybe. A small one. But again, our goal is much bigger. We want to change the whole conversation. Engaged, inspired teens are inspiring. They will inspire their families and communities and other teens whom we may never meet. They will enlarge the vision of what’s possible in their own lives, and in all of Hampden County. This is difficult to quantify, but also definitely true.

The whole dropout conversation is missing the point, I think. 1. it doesn’t matter where you learn, as long as you do, and 2. a diploma is not nearly enough. It’s one way forward, but it’s certainly not an end in itself. Young people who are invested in their own lives, who see possibility, who know how to advocate for themselves and create change- that’s what we’re going for. Our interest is not in statistics, and certainly not in test scores, but in individuals.

We will enroll only a small cohort because the work is built on relationships and substantial support. The community has to be small and safe, respectful, encouraging, accessible, and inspiring.

Holyoke and much of Hampden County are dealing with some real difficulties. But at the same time, Holyoke is in the beginning of a renaissance. There are a number of problems, but also a vast amount of opportunity.

Difficult circumstances may not seem like an opportunity, but they can be. For example, things are bad enough that many people are willing to step away from the standard educational fare that they’ve been told their lives depend on. The standard fare is not working for many, and that’s undeniable. People are more ready than ever for something new. Sometimes it has to get bad before we’re willing to make a change.

In addition, because of the low rents and multiples of old, empty factory buildings- many, many exciting projects are moving in, especially arts spaces of all kinds. We will be located in the “Innovation District” where the city and the state are focused on supporting new initiatives. We’re considering that whole area as a campus, and we’ve connected with all the other awesome stuff that’s already happening there. There are pop up restaurants that we’re connecting with to make lunch with and for our kids, Girls Inc is across the street with an empty tech lab during the day, the Boys and Girls Club is up the street with an empty gym. Gateway City Arts has a performance space, dance studio, ceramics studio, and woodshop one block over. All of these programs are empty during the day, while most students are in traditional school. LightHouse doesn't have to build or recreate everything, because so much of it is already there, empty all day long.

It’s all pretty exciting, really. We are working with teens as if they are future adults who will be running the world, and not as if they are numbers that we need to get to an arbitrary finish line so that they can start their next race.

We anticipate that most of our teens will choose to move on to college after LightHouse, as they do at North Star. Most North Star teens go on to college- about 80% of them. For those who don’t go- it’s a choice, a choice to do something else they prefer- start their own business, travel, work… This is our expectation for LightHouse teens as well. Our goal is not to simply funnel students into college, but to support students to access an empowered life and choose their most positive next steps, whether that is college, UnCollege (woot!) or another enterprise or adventure.

We don’t need to simply accept that school is miserable for both teachers and students. There are many ways forward.

If you’d like to learn more or to get involved with LightHouse, get it touch!




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