Updated September 12, 2022 - 11:53 pm
On a recent Wednesday morning, children at Bloom Academy — a “self-directed learning center” — stood in a circle to begin an hour-long theater workshop.
Sarah Tavernetti, founder and executive director, called it the “concentration circle.” She directed children, who are considered homeschooled, to stand with their hands by their side and pick a focal point.
They later played a game in which 12-year-old Dan Petit tried to make his peers smile.
“We’re going to respect people’s boundaries and be kind,” Tavernetti told the children.
In a different room, Yamila De Leon, co-founder and program director, sat on a sofa with 8-year-old Marley Harris watching a documentary about natural disasters, including a 2015 earthquake in Nepal. She frequently asked him questions.
The nonprofit Bloom Academy opened in August 2021 on South Rainbow Boulevard in Las Vegas amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s part of a movement called “microschooling.” The trend accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic — particularly, while Clark County School District campuses operated under a year of distance education until in-person classes resumed in spring 2021.
Southern Nevada is home to more than 20 microschools, which are “multifamily learning arrangements,” said Don Soifer, president of Nevada Action for School Options and a former board member for the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority.
Most are operating with children who are considered homeschooled, he said, while some are small private schools.
Microschooling took off during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, noting that some families have started to reconsider their relationship with educational institutions they once relied on.
Plans for Bloom Academy were in the works before the pandemic, said De Leon, who previously taught at private Montessori schools.
“The pandemic just gave us more people,” she said.
Some families realized the school system no longer worked for them, came to the center during distance learning and stayed, De Leon said.
The Clark County School District, which has about 300,000 students, has seen its enrollment drop by nearly 23,000 students since the 2018-19 school year, according to a July presentation to the Nevada State Board of Education. That’s an estimate based on projected enrollment numbers for this school year.
‘Alternative to school’
Bloom Academy is the first self-directed learning center in Nevada, Tavernetti said.
“We’re an alternative to school for kids,” she said.
Instead of using a set curriculum, children choose what they learn. The center, which isn’t a registered school, currently serves about 30 children ages 5 to 14.
Tavernetti and De Leon are the only two staff members. Parents and children also lead workshops.
Tavernetti, who previously worked for six years as a second grade teacher in the Clark County School District, said Bloom Academy is a “much more free way of doing things” than a traditional school setting.
The philosophy is that “kids are natural learners,” Tavernetti said, and will learn core academic skills almost completely independently.
Academics are the easiest aspect, she said, but social-emotional learning is harder.
Many Bloom Academy families saw their child’s mental well-being suffering in conventional schools, Tavernetti said.
De Leon said children need an environment where they feel safe and heard.
Families pay a membership fee to use the center, which is open during typical school day hours. It also mimics the school district’s calendar.
The center charges a membership fee: $55 for a full day or $35 for a half day. Families can choose how often they want their child to attend, with a minimum of two days a week.
Tavernetti said they want Bloom Academy to be accessible to families. The center offers scholarships, and there’s also an option for parents to volunteer in exchange for a discounted rate.
De Leon said a goal is to keep Bloom Academy small, but it would be ideal for the center to move into a different space where children could play outside.
Tavernetti said they hope Bloom Academy can be a model for alternative schools.
On the recent Wednesday, about a dozen children — some of whom were barefoot — were sitting on a sofa and on the floor at Bloom Academy.
They each had a clipboard with a center “contract” they were filling out. It outlined their responsibilities such as kitchen duty and vacuum duty.
The gathering room had posters — such as of the periodic table of elements, a map of the United States and letters of the alphabet — displayed on the walls. A play kitchen was in the corner, and a bookshelf included board games such as “Sorry!”
A bulletin board displayed workshops for the week, including book club, theater and culture club. It also had student ideas for workshop topics, gaming among them.
A long hallway was covered with pillows, which students were using for a game of “the floor is lava.”
Don and Ashley Soifer have three children — ages 13, 11 and 10 — who attend Bloom Academy three days a week.
Ashley Soifer said it was interesting to watch the transition from her children being at a public charter school and doing what was expected of them at designated times to choosing what they wanted to learn and how.
She said they are discovering interests she never knew they had. Her son, for instance, wants to be a globally responsible architect and use sustainable materials, she noted.
And she said it’s exciting to see them set out to answer their own questions.
Southern Nevada Urban Micro Academy, launched by the city of North Las Vegas in August 2020 as a response to the pandemic, garnered national attention as an alternative education option to help combat learning loss.
The academy ran for two years and concluded at the end of this past pring semester.
As students headed back to school campuses and pandemic restrictions eased, “we had accomplished our mission,” North Las Vegas city spokesman Patrick Walker said.
The homeschooling program — it wasn’t considered a school, according to state law — served elementary and middle school-aged children and was free for participating North Las Vegas families. Students had to withdraw from their public school.
Students took mostly online lessons but were supported by an adult in the classroom. Homeschooled children aren’t required to be taught by a licensed educator.
The academy was initially operated for the first year by Nevada Action for School Options.
In July 2021, the North Las Vegas City Council approved an educational support services agreement with Pioneer Technology & Arts Academy, a Texas-based public charter school network, to operate the microschool. Funding came from federal coronavirus relief money.
In March, Pioneer filed two lawsuits in District Court against the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority and its executive director after trying for two years to get approval to open a North Las Vegas campus, alleging its applications were unlawfully denied.
Online court records show the cases were dismissed.
New microschooling resource center
Last month, a new Las Vegas-based National Microschooling Center was announced. It’s housed within Nevada Action for School Options and is in the process of transitioning to become its own nonprofit.
Southern Nevada Urban Micro Academy garnered a lot of attention nationally around microschooling, Don Soifer said, and requests for training started coming in from other states.
It made sense to create a national center to provide resources, said Soifer, who is CEO of the new national center.
Since microschools are small, they may not be able to evaluate options for learning tools or afford to purchase them, Don Soifer said, and the national center will help with contract management and training.
Ashley Soifer, chief innovation officer for the National Microschooling Center, said it’s not about simply finding a model that works somewhere else and putting it into a community.
Instead, it’s “building a program for our specific learners,” she said.
Southern Nevada is being viewed as a national leader for its “dynamic and diversified ecosystem” for microschooling, Don Soifer said.
He said it’s definitely an early adoption phase in the microschooling movement, and he doesn’t know what it will look like in five years.
But, he said, “it’s an energy in education that we just haven’t seen anywhere in a long time.”
Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at email@example.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.