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Friday Feature: Nevada School of Inquiry

Colleen Hroncich

Christina and Eric Threeton have a lot of experience in education. They both taught in the Clark County School District in Nevada before moving to the charter school sector. When they moved into charter administration, they expected to really be able to shake things up and make an impact.

“We were always trying to do new things in the classroom, always kind of innovative,” says Eric. “The higher we got, we realized the less you can actually do. Your hands are tied more. It got to the point where, in order to do what we know is best for children, we needed to do something different. So we saved up some money and took a leap.”

The leap was starting their own private microschool, the Nevada School of Inquiry (NVSI). They decided to focus on middle school because there are great elementary and high schools in the area, but they found the middle school landscape to be lacking in good options. Christina and Eric plan to do things differently than most traditional schools, allowing kids to explore their passions through self‐​directed learning, incorporating field trips and hiking, and using units of instruction to teach thematically.

This is the first year of operation for NVSI, and there are currently 11 students enrolled—up from three at the beginning of the year. The cap they’ve set for the program in their current location is 30 students. This will allow them to maintain the family‐​like atmosphere and student‐​centered approach.

While the group is small, they still separate for some classes to ensure each child is at the level that’s right for them. “There are a couple of subjects that we teach all together because they need to have the state standards mastered before they leave 8th grade,” says Christina. “So we wrote a three‐​year program for those. The kids are together for science, social studies, health, and PE. When it comes to math and ELA, it gets a little bit different.” Christina works with the 6th graders to ensure they build a strong foundation for the future. Eric works with the other groups for 7th and 8th grade math, pre‐​Algebra, and Algebra 1. For English/​Language Arts, the students all read the same novel, but Christina differentiates their assignments based on their level.

NVSI focuses on mastery, so they use a hybrid grading approach. Students are rated based on their mastery of a subject and then that rating is converted to a traditional letter grade. This helps parents understand how their kids are progressing and gives them a regular report card to use for high school applications.

Before a student enrolls, they meet with the family to make sure the school is a good fit for them. They also help to set up a plan for each incoming student to help them achieve their goals when it comes to high school. According to Christina, a student’s plan will be different depending on their expected path—for example, they may want to attend an International Baccalaureate school, a performing arts school, or one of the elite private schools in the area. “Really starting to get them thinking early has been helpful because then we can meet those expectations and set them on the right trajectory,” she says.

Eric and Christina plan to eventually build a new school so they can hire other teachers and enroll more students. But for now, they just want to fill their current location and get on a sustainable funding path so they can go back to earning salaries. “It’s scary to leave,” Eric notes. “We went from both of us making good money to making nothing, but it’s absolutely amazing.”

What advice would they offer other teachers, parents, or entrepreneurs looking to start their own school or learning center? Eric says, “Start saving up some capital because it’s very capital intensive—more so than we thought. We thought we’d saved enough. We did not save enough. Though the initial capital investment is high, you’re going to be not making money for a little bit. But hopefully in the end you’ll come out on top. We’re still kind of waiting for that.”

Christina and Eric are confident NVSI will flourish. Growing from three to 11 students in the first year helped bolster that confidence. Other than three students graduating, all of their current students are returning next year along with several new students who have already registered. Their growth has been through word of mouth, which is evidence that their families are happy with this new learning environment for their children.

Beyond the financial challenges, Eric and Christina had to deal with a lot of hurdles to get NVSI up and running. There were zoning issues and code issues that fell under separate government agencies and were time‐​consuming to deal with. They had to be “squeaky wheels” to make sure things moved along quickly or else they wouldn’t have been able to open on time—and even then, it was down to the wire. They got their final approval two days before the first day of school.

These hurdles keep some good educators from branching out to start their own school. “It’s a shame there isn’t a clearer path for people to be able to do something like this without all those barriers, because we need more options,” Eric laments. Fortunately, there are people like Eric and Christina who are willing to take the road less traveled. Future entrepreneurs will benefit from the lessons they’re learning.

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