Frustrated by district bureaucracy, teacher launches new learning center based on students’ interests

Lisa Buie

Sapna Academy, brainchild of former district teacher Jo Lawson, offers student-centered learning experiences two to four times per week and is housed in the link, a 22,500 square-foot, high-tech community hub in St. John’s County.

Jo Lawson never experienced the stress of taking a high-stakes standardized test. The private schools she attended from kindergarten through 12th grade weren’t required to give the tests, which can be used to determine student promotion, teacher employment evaluations, and whether a school lands on the dreaded “underperforming” list.

After graduating with an education degree from Flagler College in 2009, Lawson began teaching in district schools. The idealistic rookie found the red tape and seemingly endless testing soul-crushing.

“I was just kind of thrown into this world and I felt very alone,” Lawson recalled.  “I didn’t realize the bureaucracy of a public school and how difficult it really is to get anything done.”

Lawson’s frustration reached a fever pitch when, after questioning the direction to administer yet another test, her principal admitted the only reason Lawson’s students had to take the test was because the district had already paid for it, and leaders didn’t want to waste money.

So, Lawson took a stand. Not only did she refuse to give the test, she put it in writing. Soon after, she informed her bosses that she wouldn’t be back the following year. She took a break to be a full-time mom to her infant daughter.

Jo and Justin Lawson and their daughter Juno

The episode convinced her that education, which she always had experienced as an adventure, needed to look radically different if students were going to succeed in the 21st century. Her epiphany, coupled with a desire to provide that experience for her two daughters, inspired her and her husband, Justin, to start Sapna Academy, a learning and tutoring center in St. Johns County that focuses on self-directed learning.

The center is affiliated with Agile Learning Centers, a rapidly growing global network of secular alternative schools where kids design their own education. It resembles the unschooling movement that began in the late 1960s that allowed students to focus on their own interests.

(You can listen to a two-part podcast with an unschooling expert here and here.)

Sapna, which offers experiences two to four times per week, is housed in the link, a 22,500 square-foot, high-tech community hub. With a mission statement of learn – play- think – do, the link offers co-workspace and serves as a business incubator. Perhaps its most impressive feature is the immersive room, a space that uses virtual reality and other technology to allow occupants to have experiences as if they were physically present.

“It lets you go anywhere in the world,” explained Lawson, who expects to use it for virtual field trips.

Lawson and her husband began their project by setting up as a limited liability company and naming it the School of Athens. While looking for a space, they met Raghu Misra, the link’s founder and an advocate of student-led learning. When Misra, an opponent of high-stakes testing himself, heard about the Lawsons’ plans, he was so impressed that he offered to let them partner with him and operate at the link as a nonprofit. They changed the name to Sapna Academy.

“Sapna Academy has a vision of providing different ways to learn” Misra said. “We want each person to feel like they can succeed at their own pace with the help of our knowledgeable instructors and state-of-the-art experiential learning tools that will provide them with unique experiences geared towards developing skills in areas they are interested in, all while having fun.”

At Sapna, students are divided into two groups, “Roots” ages 4 to 8, and “Branches” ages 7 to 18. Students are free to move between the groups if they choose. Summer programs, called “offerings,” include algebra prep, “The Art of Storytelling,” and “Getting to Know the Masters,” in which students study the world’s greatest visual artists.

“We might start with Monet and then let students do watercolor paintings,” Lawsons said. “The first offerings were driven by our passions, but we will add new offerings based on the students’ passions.”

In addition to virtual reality field trips, Lawson’s long-term vision includes guest speakers, yoga classes taught by a certified yoga instructor, and seminars for middle schoolers considering district high school career academies.

The idea, Lawson said, is to help them make more informed choices before it’s too late and they end up on a career track that isn’t the right fit.

“We want to help public school students, too,” she said.

The possibilities are pretty much endless, which Lawson said is the beauty of self-directed learning.

“My vision for my learning center is that children will take the helm,” she said. “They will be at the forefront of their education, and I will be there to facilitate it and to help them get on the right path.”

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