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ISLA Academy Brings Innovative Education to North Coast, Dominican Republic

Complete with a swimming pool and lots of green space, the ISLA Academy doesn't look like an ordinary school. Actually, it strives to be anything but ordinary.

Housed in what had been a two-story home in the Playa Laguna community of Sosúa, the school serves approximately 50 families, primarily of North American and European backgrounds. The parents don't want an old-school approach for their children, says ISLA Academy co-founder Sean Bennett.

"The community is small but interested in new models of education," says Bennett, a lifelong educator originally from Brunswick, Georgia. "The parents are open to putting their kids into the 21st century. It's exciting to be an educator and to be able to do that. We're taking parents by the hand and walking them to a new form of education."

Students don't memorize. Rote learning is out. "That's how to kill the love of learning," said Bennett, who has taught in the U.S., Asia and Africa. "We favor concepts, the big ideas. We focus on helping students ask the right questions, investigate to find those answers, and then communicate their understanding."

The learning at ISLA Academy is personalized. Teachers use the inquiry method in their classrooms, with each student working at their own pace and learning the skills necessary to become a truly independent researcher. Every six weeks, the students work through a fully integrated transdisciplinary unit that incorporates not only all major academic areas, but also creative arts, self-management skills, and character traits.

In building the school's composting bin, for example, students incorporated math and geometry to determine measurements and angles. Through science they learned the process of composting—and what to do about the fruit-fly problem that often comes with composting.

"You can't just build a box and walk away," Bennett explained. "We get the kids building, presenting, communicating, collaborating."

Nature and protecting the Earth figure prominently in the curriculum, which emphasizes fun, hands-on, progressive and challenging learning.

"Children are powerfully affected — cognitively, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually — by their interactions with nature," Bennett said. "We sincerely believe that nature is the greatest teacher that inspires creativity and positivity."

ISLA Academy's physical education takes advantage of the same conditions that have made the North Shore an international watersports destination. The school offers surfing classes and hopes to add other watersports later. There's also kickball, soccer, hiking and capture the flag. Swimming lessons, starting at infant and toddler level, take place out front in the school pool.

"Being physically healthy is such an important part of living that it must be a central part of education," Bennett said.

Students will also be skilled users of computer technology while being "keenly aware of its dangers, opportunities and pitfalls," he added.

In addition to school faculty, volunteers share their knowledge with students. A professional musician from the US volunteered during the second semester to enhance the music program. A Russian biologist is working to develop an aquaponics system for the school garden. A retired U.S. expat involves kids in cooking in the school kitchen, the ISLA Café, which also serves up delicious vegetarian lunches for students and staff.

Bennett and his wife, Juliette Verville, also an international educator, opened ISLA Academy in 2015, offering preschool through high school. First-year enrollment reached 30 students, with an additional 20 in after-school clubs. In just its second year, enrollment has increased to nearly 75 students, with a waiting list for many of the classes.

The academy works closely with the fully accredited Clonlara School of Ann Arbor, Michigan, a pioneer in the home schooling movement. Bennett submits a plan for each student, communicates on his or her progress and assesses each student using U.S. Common Core standards.

Given some of the parents' transient lifestyles, the school ensures the children are at grade level should they return to their home country.

Bennett began teaching at age 16 as a youth mentor in his hometown. His career took him to South Korea, Vietnam and Tanzania. In 2012, he moved to the Dominican Republic and spent two years as head of the English Department at the country's first STEM magnet school, the Liceo Cientifico in Salcedo.

"Teaching and guidance were a part of me before I ever knew what I wanted to be when I grew up'," he said.

Bennett spent two years looking for an ideal site before choosing the 2,500-square-meter house with its inviting pool and spacious yard as ISLA Academy's home.

"It doesn't look like a traditional school, but it's just the right feel for us," he said.

Registration is open for the 2016-2017 academic year, for ages 2-18, classes begin August 29th.

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