Alternative School Helps Attract Portland Family to ABQ

Innovative Acton Academy seeks student engagement with startup community

This story is Part 1 of a two-part series about innovative education in Albuquerque and its impact on economic development. Part 2 will publish Nov. 15, with links to videos and a list of local nontraditional schools and programs for children of all ages.

Attracting a family like the Yoons of Portland to Albuquerque is the equivalent of scoring a major headquarters on a nano scale.

Wife Jessica is a dermatologist. Techie husband Michael is an entrepreneur in software development and also a creative writer. The two met at Brown University and transferred together to Harvard, where she attended medical school. Their sons, Nicholas, a competitive rock climber at age 9, and braniac Alexander, 12, have been attending a Waldorf school, a worldwide education platform that teaches via experiential learning. Despite the parents’ traditional early classroom experiences, Ivy-League degrees and professional success, the Yoons believe innovative, nontraditional schools that teach children how to be entrepreneurs, think for themselves and work with others will provide the best training for their future.

The Yoons started looking to move from Portland because they were tired of traffic congestion, and Jessica sought more (and sunnier) career options around skin cancer care. They also wanted a very specific type of education for their boys. It is largely due to the presence of the new Acton Academy in Albuquerque that they chose to move here.

“We looked at Tucson (Ariz.), which has an unschooling type environment. And we found Acton in Austin. But Austin is just like Portland. It’s such a big city and there’s so much traffic – though they do have more sun – and we just didn’t want that lifestyle. That’s when we realized they were starting an Acton in Albuquerque,” and the match was made, Jessica said.

That attraction is a two-way street. Cities like Albuquerque recognize the value of attracting doers, thinkers and creators of all ages. Children like the Yoons have been raised and educated from Day 1 with an entrepreneurial mindset, so critical thinking is a part of who they are and it leads them to turn challenges into opportunities. As such, they are key to future job creation, economic prosperity and the ability for a city to not only attract more like them and their families but also to recruit companies with employees who care about varied quality school options at a potential new location.

“When making a location decision, it’s very important to companies that their employees enjoy a desirable quality of life, including access to education choices for their children,” said Annemarie Henton, director of communications and marketing for Albuquerque Economic Development. “Employees are also most likely to remain with a company when they and their families are happy where they live. Schools are a large part of that equation.”

While Acton has qualities that differentiate it from some other schools offering “formalized unschooling,” – namely its focus on tech-based learning – Albuquerque offers an array of nontraditional schools and programs for parents and youth who want an alternative to grade-based advancement and desk learning. (Videos and a list of schools are expected to be available Nov. 7 at www.educationabq.com)

Acton, which opened in a rented space at Grace Church in September, is part of a nationwide network of 60 schools that originated in Austin. There is also a fast-growing Acton Academy in Las Cruces, which is in its second year.

“Ideal families who are excited about our school model tend to be entrepreneurs themselves and out-of -the-box thinkers,” said Shannon Baldwin, head of school. “It’s a very different way of doing school. There is more focus on doing and becoming than on rote learning, (and that different focus) appeals to people interested in tech and entrepreneurship. They know that sitting in class and taking notes doesn’t necessarily prepare kids for the future.

“Most of the job these kids will have haven’t even been invented yet.”

Local Acton founder Jeff Johns, who has two children enrolled, said the environment created by the school prepares students for success in an unknown future, a world likely to be losing more and more jobs to artificial intelligence.

Albuquerque’s location started with 11 students between the ages of 6 and 12, who all work together on core skills using the latest adaptive software programs. Students are self-paced and set weekly and annual goals. Most learning occurs through projects. They have “quests,” where the children work on deliverables for a project and end the session with an exhibition to present findings, demonstrate machines, or otherwise show result from their particular project.

The month of April will involve an entrepreneur quest, in which the children will discover what motivates them and come up with an idea for a product or service. They’ll conduct price comparisons, marketing, and explore how to sell their product or service, culminating in a Children’s Business Fair.

The fair will be open to 30 other children in the community who would like to participate.

“It’s a natural market competition between young entrepreneurs from the community,” Baldwin said. “Booths are judged, and cash prizes are given out.”

Baldwin also said the school wants to build relationships and engage with innovative groups in Albuquerque’s startup community because Acton is focused on getting students connected with the real world early on.

Nontraditional schools are not for every family. The children often work unsupervised; they hold each other accountable for their work and their actions; and they are forced to come up with solutions when they have problems.

“It can be frustrating for the children and the parents,” Baldwin said. “It breaks the habit of learned helplessness, but it also comes with the pain of empowerment: It’s easier to expect an adult to fix something for you than to be in an environment that asks, ‘What can you do to fix that?’”

Jessica recently overheard a pair of millennials talking about how they have two college degrees, can’t find a job and are considering working at Starbucks in the interim.

“I thought, ‘Why not make a job?’” she said. “We’ve kind of handicapped people. I do think it’s huge to start teaching people how to be doers and how to create instead of waiting for somebody else to give them a job.

“If Acton hadn’t been in Albuquerque, we may not have come. Really having that innovative school was a huge part of that equation.”

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