What if you could create a school from scratch – consult the experts, design the space, hire the teachers and incorporate all the latest research into how children think, move, develop and learn?
What would it look like?
Annie Koch wondered.
And now she and her husband are building it.
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Chase and Annie Koch, the son and daughter-in-law of Koch Industries chief Charles Koch, are getting into the private school business in Wichita, financing a new pre-K-through-12th-grade school on the campus of Wichita State University.
The school, called Wonder, is scheduled to open for preschool and elementary-age children in September. Plans call for middle- and high-school programs to be phased in over time.
“I’m mostly just a mom that’s passionate about education for her kids,” said Annie Koch, 33, a mother of three children, ages 5, 3 and 3 months.
“You start to realize, ‘Actually, my kids spend more time at school than they spend with me.’ And so, being able to bring what we see as the best of what’s out there to them. … I couldn’t be more excited.”
Her partner and co-founder for the project is Zach Lahn, a former fundraiser and state director for Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-backed conservative political advocacy group.
“We’re not inventors. We’re just parent catalysts,” said Lahn, 31, who moved to Wichita from Des Moines, Iowa, last spring to work on the project. He and his wife have two children, ages 4 and 3.
“Right after my son was born, somebody said to me, jokingly, ‘Now you need to start thinking about school.’ And I just laughed,” he said.
“But I got to thinking about it, and that sort of opened up a Pandora’s box for me. …Through that process, my eyes just got opened up to what’s really going on in education in different pockets around the country.”
The school will be in a former print shop on the east side of WSU’s campus.
According to a lease agreement between Wonder and the Wichita State Innovation Alliance, signed in December, the school will pay $90,000 a year for the space and pay for the renovations, which are underway.
They are investing about $1.1 million in the building. Total launch costs are estimated at about $1.5 million including the renovations and equipment.
Modeled after schools such as Acton Academy in Austin, Texas, and NuVu (pronounced “new view”) on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Wonder will incorporate facets of the “Maker movement” and other education innovations, Lahn said.
“Rather than invent something brand new, we’ve just set out to help bridge this gap between what’s happening elsewhere and what’s happening here,” he said.
▪ Students will be grouped into multi-age studios, rather than traditional grade levels, and advance only after they achieve certain academic and social milestones – a mastery-based approach touted by Kahn Academy founder Sal Kahn.
The first level, Wonder One, will be a Montessori-model preschool, Lahn said. Wonder Two will be for children roughly in second through fifth grades. Wonder Three and Wonder Four, part of the school’s long-range plan, will be geared toward middle- and high-schoolers.
▪ The school’s floorplan reflects a trend toward flexible seating, rather than traditional desks, with glass walls and wide-open spaces designed to encourage collaboration and creativity.
The school’s outdoor space, which will feature berms, tunnels and various climbing structures, was designed by Katy Bowman, author of “Move Your DNA,” who argues that movement should be a part of people’s everyday lives.
▪ There won’t be any teachers at Wonder, but rather “guides” and “coaches,” Lahn said. The school plans to allow students more say in what, how and at what pace they learn.
“We think that children are not challenged to the fullest extent that they could be right now,” Lahn said. “We want to challenge them to take on new tasks and greater ownership over what they’re doing.”
▪ There won’t be traditional grades or report cards either. Students will spend four to six weeks working on theme-based, hands-on projects, presenting them at the culmination to family and community members, who will offer feedback and ratings.
“There will be conversations happening every day in the studio: ‘Is this your best work?’ And they’re constantly being challenged to produce more iterations and better iterations,” Koch said.
▪ And no homework – at least not in the early years, Koch said. Older students who want to start a business or pursue a specific career goal might work on those projects outside of school.
“We think there’s so much value in spending time with your family, having free time, playing,” Koch said. “We really want to preserve that for the kids.”
Tuition for elementary age children is $10,000 a year, Lahn said. Families with preschoolers in Wonder One will pay about $6,500 a year.
“That said, this will be the only cost,” Lahn said. “We will not be asking for extra funds for other activities.”
The school plans to eventually offer financial aid options and scholarships but won’t have those in place for the launch this fall, Lahn said. Similarly the school is “not equipped” currently to handle children with special needs, he said.
“We’d love to serve as many students as we can. We just have to look at what our capabilities are,” Lahn said.
Koch said the first few years will be spent exploring options and collaborating with schools across the country to develop the best program for Wichita.
“We want to allow our students and our families to be able to help us really build this school,” she said. “So when we have a question, we might put it to them: ‘What do you guys think? What works?’”
No political mission
Koch said she doesn’t envision Wonder competing directly with established private schools such as Wichita Collegiate or The Independent School because it’s designed so differently.
Wonder will not seek state accreditation, opting instead to work under the guidelines of the International Association of Learner-Driven Schools.
“Most of the private schools (in Wichita) are college-preparatory academies, and we are not that,” Koch said. “People who are really passionate about having a college-prep academy might not be as passionate about what we’re doing.”
Lahn, who came to national attention as a conservative student activist in Colorado and then a state director for Americans for Prosperity, said the school would not have any political affiliation or mission.
Lahn left Americans for Prosperity in 2015 and began working with the Koch-founded Youth Entrepreneurs program.
“The answer very plainly there is no,” he said of the new school’s political bent.
“We believe that we need to have an understanding of freedom and why we can have these discussions and debates. But no, there’s not any sort of politically driven or any other influence. This is really about learning and discovery.”
The co-founders said they met with Wichita Superintendent Alicia Thompson and other local educators to explain their project and have been pleased with the response.
“Everyone out there is trying to be innovative in different ways, but they’re all working within the constraints of their own system,” Lahn said.
“We’re able to step back and say, ‘What should this look like? And who are the people that are really doing this best?’”
“We have a small school. If we have some success with this school and other people in the community see what we’re doing, are interested in what we’re doing, it’s definitely our intention to share any knowledge that we have,” she said.
A living laboratory
Shirley Lefever, dean of the College of Education at WSU, said she’s excited to partner with the school, which will serve as a kind of living laboratory for teaching students.
“I think they have an incredible vision, and we just feel very privileged to be a part of that conversation,” Lefever said.
The school plans to host workshops for students, prospective teachers and others, sometimes bringing in experts from programs elsewhere in the country.
“I do see this as just one more opportunity,” Lefever said. “We’re always looking for ways that we can continue to learn and continue to try to understand how to improve educational outcomes for students.”
Koch said she envisions sharing ideas and encouraging other startup schools.
“We want other people doing this. We want competition,” she said. “We want somebody else to open another one of these, because we feel like that would make us better.
“We’re a small school, but we feel like we could have a big impact.”
Wonder, a new private school being built on the Wichita State University campus, is enrolling children ages 3-11 for next school year. For more information or to contact the founders, visit www.daringtowonder.com. The school plans to launch a complete website later this month.