Johanna Lawson, who with her husband Justin is a facilitator at Sapna Academy, sits at a table near the school’s growing library of children’s books.
PHOTO BY SHAUN RYAN
Originally Posted Thursday, October 14, 2021 12:00 am in the Ponte Vedra Recorder
Even before ground was broken in 2020 for the link — the 22,500-square-foot co-working space, innovation incubator and cultural centerpiece in Nocatee Town Center — education was part of the plan.
From the beginning, founder Raghu Misra said he wanted to create a place where people could “learn, play, think and do.”
Now, that learning component has taken form in a concrete way.
Due in part to a fortuitous meeting between Misra and two local educators, Sapna Academy opened in August at the facility. It has an enrollment of 14, with students ranging in age from 4 to 13, and the potential to grow to 20 students up to 18 years of age.
And like so many other aspects of the link, Sapna Academy doesn’t follow the conventional model. Rather, the education is self-directed.
“Self-directed learning means that we don’t have a set curriculum,” explained Johanna Lawson, who identifies herself as a facilitator rather than a teacher. “It’s all driven by the kids’ interest and their passions.”Misra said he is a strong believer in this methodology.
“To me, that is when the retention levels are, in my opinion, much higher,” he said, “because it is self-generated interest or curiosity that is driving the child to learn things instead of content being pushed to them.” Such a method also benefits the student who, in a traditional classroom, would be ahead of peers.
“Sadly,” said Misra, “when you are in a group setting, you are stuck with the least common denominator.” Lawson and her husband, Justin, are the academy’s facilitators. Both have taught in public schools and charter schools but could not find the right fit for their philosophy of education.
In talking to other parents, Johanna Lawson happened upon Agile Learning Centers, a network of micro-schools that supports self-directed learning, which she felt aligned with their approach to learning. “As I started researching Agile Learning Centers, I started seeing things about these pods,” she said. “Families who are coming together and hiring teachers to teach their kids. I was like, ‘Man, I would love that.’”
Everything fell into place after the Lawsons met Misra.
“When I saw their tag line, ‘learn, play, think, do,’ I was like, ‘That is us. We need to be in this building,’” said Johanna Lawson.
Sapna Academy serves a diverse set of students. Some are homeschooled, and parents use it to supplement their children’s socialization. “I think a lot of parents were looking for the opportunity for their kids just to talk to another kid,” said Johanna Lawson.
For other families, Sapna Academy is their full-time school. And, as it turns out, it also serves an all-too-often underserved population.
“Something that I didn’t really anticipate was I had a lot of neuro-diverse families come out,” said Johanna Lawson. “I have a child with Down syndrome. I have multiple children with autism who come. These kids have never really been able to participate in school or in a learning environment with peers. And they get this opportunity because our center is very fluid and can go with the flow of what their day brings.”
The Lawsons get to know the children and their interests and then curate topics weekly around a theme. What follows is “a much more hands-on, real-world experience than saying, ‘Do a workbook page,’” said Johanna Lawson.
She said she speaks with parents daily to talk about their children’s successes and what they need to work on. In addition, the Lawsons and the Sapna families have monthly community meetings.
The school is growing steadily, with new students being added each month. Many come from the Nocatee area, others drive in from Julington Creek, Mandarin, and elsewhere.
Sapna means “dream” in Hindi, and the school is under the umbrella of the Sapna Foundation, a nonprofit that Misra created to help connect displaced workers with prospective employers.
Another component of the foundation will help entrepreneurs crystalize their ideas from the ideation phase through launch. In addition, Misra hopes to add yet another component that will help these entrepreneurs acquire the funding they need to carry out their plans.
Sapna Academy is also incorporating elements to serve the entire community. For instance, it is assembling a library at the link comprised of books donated by members of the community. In addition, it’s planning to begin holding a “story time” for kids.
Among plans currently being formulated is an online platform to encourage children and youth to read. But it doesn’t end there. Misra said he wants this to be results-driven.
Young readers will be encouraged to write a book report, to then be reviewed and assigned points by a panel of adults. Based on these points, the book reports will be ranked each month, and readers will receive small gifts based on the quality and quantity of the submitted reports.
Beyond that, the young readers will be encouraged to create presentations, which they will deliver to an audience from the stage in the main lobby of the link.
Though Sapna Academy is at the heart of these plans, they will be available to any children and youth in the community.
Johanna Lawson praised Misra and his wife Gurpreet for their support of the school.
“It’s a great partnership,” she said.
Anyone interested in Sapna Academy can learn more by going to sapna.academy.