DENVER — Since COVID-19 shut down schools, data shows Black and Hispanic students have suffered the biggest drop in math and reading scores, but for some of these families, the challenges the pandemic created left them wanting to leave traditional school altogether.
Now, alternative schools are providing a new kind of learning for students most needing support. La Luz is one of those schools.
“La Luz is a belief,” said the school’s founder Kyle Gamba. “La Luz is the belief that middle school should be done differently and that kids should be not sitting at desks and chairs, but should be learning out in the community.”
That’s exactly what happens daily for students at this alternative middle school. For the next six weeks, the Denver Zoo is their classroom. After that, they will rotate to different community partners and learn reading, math and science in the community.
La Luz translates to "the light," and Gamba hopes this is a beacon of hope for students who don’t fit in at traditional schools.
“I've been a principal for about the last decade, and what I really saw in middle school classrooms was that kids were bored,” said Gamba. “We just weren't meeting the needs of the population, particularly the Hispanic population.”
Gamba saw students struggling with language barriers and found they weren’t getting enough help in large classes. That’s when he started La Luz.
“Middle school’s rough, and instead of just telling kids to, ‘Get through it and don't worry. Hang in there for three years,’ I think we can do better,” said Gamba.
The school is free for families and is entirely funded by donations. It’s a resource Gamba built to support Hispanic students, but all are welcome.
“I was like, oh my gosh, this is like, I would have been perfect here as a kid. It's what I needed!” said La Luz teacher Andrea Nieto.
For Nieto, it’s the best opportunity she’s ever had to connect with students. The class has fewer than 20 students.
“Even as an adult, I learn best by doing something and by being involved in it,” said Nieto. “I don't learn as well just sitting and hearing from someone. And so, I wanted to give that same opportunity to my students.”
The students learn from their teachers and experts across the community. At the Denver Zoo, the lessons include biology, ecology and conservation, and the students approve.
“We get more often to be outside, which that is great. Learning new things every day. And I get excited every day like, ‘What are we going to do, and what we are going to see today?’” said seventh grader Paola Gomez.
“This school is like lots of like energy, lots of things that you probably have not known,” said seventh grader Natalia Gomez.
The energy from students shows both teams at La Luz and the zoo that this alternative class is making an impact.
“I grew up in this neighborhood where these kids grew up in. And so, I know what it is to not have access to certain things,” said James Garcia, the youth engagement coordinator for the Denver Zoo. “Who's it going to take? It's people coming back to the community and giving back and say, you know, I didn't have this experience, but I'm going to share my professionalism, what I've learned, and share it back with you.”
The team hopes La Luz is just the start of a new kind of learning across the country.
“The goal is to prove that this model can work for anyone, anywhere. Doesn't matter race, gender, socioeconomic status,” said Nieto.
“I just think that this is the future of education,” said Gamba.
If you’re interested in La Luz, click here.