At Johnson-Habitat park in southwest Denver, 14 sixth-graders are taking part in a new education experience. Their school day involves more time outside, more one-on-one engagement with teachers, and lessons that draw on their culture and heritage.
Former Denver Public Schools Principal Kyle Gamba started La Luz microschool with families he knew from the community.
“I wanted to use my access to provide opportunities for families that don’t look like mine,” Gamba said.
All the students currently enrolled in La Luz are Latinx, and all are currently in 6th grade. The goal is to expand to serve 6th through 8th graders, a critical developmental stage.
“The focus, especially at this age, should be on relationships, getting to know yourself, identity,” Gamba said.
The first six weeks of the school year will involve a lot of time outside. Students have already taken part in challenging hikes in the foothills and have visited several parks in Denver. Then, for the second semester, students will go to school at the Denver Zoo.
“We want (school) to flow into their lives, not be blocked off into social studies, science, or math,” said Jubitza Figueroa, one of the educators at La Luz.
Figueroa hopes students will be able to dive into subjects they’re passionate about, and educators will be there to fill in their individual knowledge gaps.
Gamba said there will also be a focus on subjects lacking in traditional schools, like financial literacy and nutrition. Cultural relevance is also a key component. Educator Alfredo Cervantes was excited to teach kids who came from the same community where he grew up.
“When Kyle called me, I wasn’t looking for a job, but he really got me with, 'It’s in southwest Denver, serving the Latino community,'” Cervantes said.
He said he hopes students will be able to take part in projects that help their community. Parents of La Luz students also appreciate having bilingual, Latinx educators for their kids. The parents were involved in interviewing and hiring both Cervantes and Figueroa.
“It’s nice to keep culture in the school,” said parent Marisol Carrillo.
Many of the students said they love having more in common with their classmates, and there’s none of the drama typically associated with middle school. They also like that they’re not stuck in a classroom all day. But Gamba also recognizes that most of these students will eventually go on to traditional high schools, and he wants to make sure they’re academically and emotionally prepared.
“We feel confident they’ll be ready for high school, mostly because they’re going to be really good people. They’ll be able to advocate for themselves and do the things that make people successful,” Gamba said.