Friday Feature: The Attuned Community School

  • February 2, 2024
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Colleen Hroncich

When Latoya Nelson received an email from KaiPod Catalyst inviting her to open a microschool, she immediately deleted it. An experienced public school teacher who worked in emotional support classrooms, Latoya knew there was a better way to reach students. While she loved working with children, she was getting burned out from dealing with the lack of flexibility and autonomy she had in the classroom. But she didn’t know much about learning pods, microschools, or homeschooling.

She received another email from KaiPod that same day, so she opened it—and was amazed by what she read. “This is what I’ve always wanted. When I thought of owning a school, I thought of a charter or maybe even a daycare center. But I had never thought of it in this way,” she recalls. Then she realized the deadline to apply for the program was the next day. “So I hurried up and I just applied. And I was like, they’re probably not going to call me.”

She was wrong. “I got the call and then I had the interview,” she says. “I had to do the interview in my car. And I was drained. I got off super late and was trying to get my daughter from school. And I thought, ‘that did not go well.’”

She was wrong again. Latoya was accepted into the KaiPod Catalyst program and opened The Attuned Community School this year, giving her the chance to implement her own ideas about helping kids who faced trauma. In her previous position, she wasn’t allowed to do the things she says she knew that would work with them. And when she followed her instincts, she’d get criticized or punished for falling behind.

“I just knew I wasn’t serving the children properly,” she says. “And I knew that the trauma that they were facing was not just from home, that some of the things we did in school were traumatic to them as well. Even if it wasn’t a new trauma, we were kind of re‐​traumatizing them or placing them in a state where they felt like they had to fight or flight. And so I just was like, I can’t do this anymore.”

Things are different at The Attuned Community School. The day starts with a community circle where the students gather around to share things that are going on in their lives. “We really focus on building a community and making ourselves feel like a family,” Latoya says. And it’s working. A parent recently remarked that he loves to see how the older children just naturally help the younger children because they’re surrounded by such a community feel.

“I think for a lot of children that are in public school who are constantly the ones needing the support and needing the help to be in this setting and to be the person offering the help and offering the support, that does something to your confidence. And when you have confidence and you feel good about yourself and you feel trusted by the people around you, there is no pressure,” Latoya notes. “Or there’s a good pressure to want to do well but not pressure in a bad way. It’s more like I want to do this for my community. I want to do this for myself. There’s something intrinsic that’s being built there versus just working for a prize out of the prize box.”

For the first couple of months of the year, the students didn’t focus on traditional academic work. They were learning to be together and learning through regular life activities, like developing a budget, shopping for groceries, and preparing meals. They spent a lot of time outside reconnecting with nature, meditating, and learning outdoor skills. Then, when the parents brought in curriculum or Latoya introduced her supplemental materials, the kids were ready to learn because they’d had a chance to redefine what success looked like when they weren’t confined by external pacing guides or deadlines.

Now students focus on academics Monday through Thursday mornings. Parents can choose their own curriculum, and some are even in online public schools. Sometimes parents ask Latoya to help them develop a homeschooling plan. After lunch, they do enrichment activities. The students help decide what they want to dive into in the afternoons. “We did a study on human anatomy. We’ve done a study on marketing and budgeting. When it got super cold, everyone was very into snow. So we’ve been studying snowflakes and Arctic weather and Arctic animals,” Latoya explains.

They also have a lot of off‐​site activities. On Tuesdays, they all go horseback riding for equine therapy and learn things like how to groom the horse, how to take care of it, how to listen to its cues, and how to use commands. On Thursdays they go to forest school where they’re able to run free in the forest, climb trees, fish, and learn about local wildlife. And on Fridays they go to farm school with a local homesteader who teaches them how to grow and process their own foods. They’re also learning how to identify herbs and plants, including which ones are safe to eat, which ones offer medication, and which ones are healing to the body. Then on Fridays they often have field trips based on whatever unit study they’re on.

Latoya is very encouraging to other teachers who are considering starting out on their own. “I would say don’t let your fears get to you, especially if you’re leaving public school,” she says. “I work with a lot of teachers on the side, and a lot of them have their own things that they’re trying to process because they’ve been hurt, too, by a system that they love. They want to love and support children and they’ve been unable to do so. And so I would just say don’t let those doubts and fears get in your way. This is something completely different. Just take the time and really re‐​center yourself. Re‐​ground yourself. And re‐​program your idea of what school is and what school has to look like, because it doesn’t look the same for everybody. And that’s okay. That’s the great thing about education is that it’s not one‐​size‐​fits‐​all and we can do the things that work for everybody if we just trust ourselves.”