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Centering the child through innovative education.

The School of Innovative Learning

The School of Innovative Learning is a 501(c)(3) organization that seeks to enrich education by nurturing each student’s unique interests, preferred modes of learning, and expression styles. Big Y supported this nonprofit organization through its Community Bag Program.

Tell us about the School of Innovative Learning.

The School of Innovative Learning (SOIL) is a neighborhood-oriented school. Our mission is to find the gifts and talents of every single child and share them with the world. The purpose of the school is to see every child as a school unto him or herself.

What services do you provide to the community?

It is a community-oriented school, meaning the community is wholly invested and involved in the school itself from the beginning. Not only do we have a facilitator as opposed to a teacher in the classroom, but we also have a facilitator on the ground in the community. We are looking to discover the gifts and talents of every single member of the community. Through this, we find how to bring those gifts from outside our school into the classroom to resonate with our students.

We are looking to discover the gifts and talents of every single member of the community. Through this, we find how to bring those gifts from outside our school into the classroom to resonate with our students.

We believe every child is born with gifts and talents within them. So, as educators, our goal in this initiative is to discover what those are and to make them shine brighter. We can lift whole communities by recognizing those gifts and bringing them to fruition between the children and the community members.

What sets the School of Innovative Learning apart from other nonprofit organizations in your community?

At SOIL, the child is the center of everything. No matter what conversation you’re in, we focus on what is best about and for each and every individual child. The child takes part in their own education from the very start. Self-efficacy is the foundation of our work as the student engages in their own journey as opposed to that journey being determined by someone else.

At SOIL, the child is the center of everything.

One of the things people focus on in education is the term differentiation. It’s one of those terms every teacher or professor claims to be doing. However, to actually define and understand differentiation is a conundrum in itself. For us, differentiation is each child’s interests, learning styles and preferred modes of expression. What are you interested in? How best do you express what you’re interested in learning about? Finally, how do you want to manifest what you’re interested in?

Through this method, children bounce off and become experts on what appeals to them. They grow and create something that belongs to them that they can share with an authentic audience.

Please tell us a story that illustrates the good work of your organization.

After 15 years of teaching secondary education in the public school system, I got my master’s degree in gifted education at the University of Connecticut. From there, I left public education and toured the world with Dr. Joseph Renzulli and Dr. Sally Reese. This work was all about Renzulli’s 40 years of research on finding the best in every child.

By helping people develop the best in themselves, not only do we create a more beautiful world, but we also help people to live more joyful lives.

I believe this education method should stretch beyond every child and include every human being. By helping people develop the best in themselves, not only do we create a more beautiful world, but we also help people to live more joyful lives. Bringing this concept into the work that I’ve been doing is all about helping individuals in whole schools to do this. However, I realized that it wasn’t enough. I needed to do something to expand this idea further past the School of Innovative Learning.

What is your most outstanding achievement or contribution to the community?

Every time I work with an individual child who discovers that they have something to share with others is an achievement. From a child who discovered his ability to make homemade pizza to another who was flown to Texas by a superintendent to speak about what he and his students created in our class, our students continuously share their gifts, which is our contribution to the community.

I can remember exactly where I was when I came up with the idea for the school seven years ago.  While walking my dogs in Hyde Park, I saw this old school on a hill. I called Dr. Renzulli, saying, “Joe, I’m going to get this school, and I’m going to rebuild it to start the program here in Stafford Springs.”

It didn’t work out. Since then, one of the things I’ve become most aware of is when you have a dream, a gift, or a talent, things can fall apart because you lose steam, you lose energy, and you lose faith in yourself. Yet, I never lost faith in this idea, and I don’t think I ever will because I believe there’s so much more we can do with the education system. We must believe in our potential and the beauty within us to create. It is all about struggle, perseverance and finding joy through that learning process.

The most powerful thing I’ve contributed is demonstrating how every individual is a school unto him or herself. That child, that parent, that teacher, that individual is the School of Innovative Learning. Whether it’s one person or two towns coming together to reach the best that they can be, this work is the School of Innovative Learning.

What do you want people to know about the School of Innovative Learning?

More than anything, I want people to look at their children in classrooms and themselves. When you look at your child or yourself, don’t look for what’s wrong. Instead, ask, “What is right with you? What is right with your child? What is something that you do well? What is something that you love to do?” Focus on that and put the other things aside. Once you find something beautiful about yourself or someone else, dive into it more deeply, recognize it and find the resources to give yourself or that person the strength and encouragement to develop. If you look at our website, you’ll see the tools that will support you in the process of looking at the community, yourself, and what could be.

How will you use the funds you’ve received from the Big Y Community Bag Program?

I will be going to New Jersey for an event for Two Bridges. I will use these funds to support what we put together for the event, particularly about SOIL. These resources will supplement an understanding of the school and include self-inspirational pieces such as researched questionnaires for self-reflection.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

For parents, you know your kids better than anyone in the entire world. Don’t let anybody in a school or anywhere else tell you otherwise. When you can tell your child is sad when they come home, trust your gut. I always say, “Head, heart, gut,” meaning use your intellect, passion and courage as a guide when you’re feeling intense emotions. A lot of things in education today are frightening to parents. Don’t be afraid to take care of yourself and your child. Be true to yourself and be true to your child.

Whenever I struggled in school as a little girl, my mom put me on the bus with my little lunchbox. Before I even got to school, she would be there and would always be right. She was the best educator I ever had. My mom firmly believed she knew her kids better than anyone and knew what was best for them. She made me into the teacher and the educator I am today and is the primary reason I started SOIL.

Nicole Waicunas is the Creator of The School of Innovative Learning.

Published December 6, 2023.