For some children, every school day can be monotonous. That’s why Kyle Gambo, who has worked in public education for 15 years, founded La Luz Micro School in Denver to make sure education was more than just “kids sitting at desks.”
At La Luz, children learn by being immersed in the community and on the move. Last year, 13 students spent weeks in the great outdoors and reported to classrooms at the Denver Zoo and the Colorado History Center.
“When you study government and history, it seems like a more authentic place to do it,” Gamba said.
The micro-school for middle classes was one of the first grants of the VELA educational fund, founded two years ago to financially support alternative educational programs. At the time, La Luz received $25,000 in funding—enough to support Gamba as he left what he called a “comfortable” school job and started out on his own with a new approach to teaching that emphasized experiential learning, building relationships and character development.
The VELA Education Foundation, in partnership with the Daniels Foundation, is now offering $750,000 in grants to educational entrepreneurs in four states, including Colorado.
Grant recipients can receive up to $10,000 for non-traditional educational programs. Alternative education models may include micro schools—tiny schools with relatively few students—and hybrid programs that include both virtual and in-person or community-based learning.
VELA has previously awarded 1,600 grants across the country totaling more than $16.5 million.
Hanna Skandera, president of the Daniels Foundation, said the foundation aims to support innovation and provide new opportunities for students.
“This investment is about providing choices and opportunities for young people, for families, that maybe the traditional system doesn’t work,” Skandera said.
VELA has also helped other entrepreneurial organizations, such as Impact Wyoming, which trains students to develop business plans and pitch their ideas to local entrepreneurs.
Gambo said he’s seen success at La Luz just because of how excited the kids are to talk about what they’ve learned at the end of the day. He said parents have become so used to children leaving saying they had a “great day” that they “learned nothing” that it’s a win, “that the kids get back in their cars and are happy to talk to by their parents.”
Gambo added that VELA allowed the “little guys” to come out and try their hand at the program with the support of the community.
“It must be hard to go out and start something on your own,” Gamba said. “It’s definitely a lot easier when the community is behind it.”