GMG - Las Vegas Weekly

September 12, 2013

Las Vegas Weekly

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9TH BRIDGE > INTENTIONAL DESIGN Connie Yeh, head of the Downtown Project's education initiatives, stands in a communal space under construction at 9th Bridge, just a few weeks before the first day of school. > REALIZED DREAM (LEFT) Student Bella Castellarin, 5, helps Lori Ann Malina, curriculum director, with the grand opening ceremony on August 27. From classrooms to the courtyard, the environment was designed around the way a child's brain learns. teachers understanding what true learning is. How does a child's brain work?" Lessons are rooted in how neural pathways form. Rather than teach standard ABCs, 9th Bridge introduces the sounds of the letters first, because the brain responds to sound first. The intent is to drive pathways for reading, with children eventually learning the traditional alphabet. 9th Bridge covers the Common Core so kids can move on to any school, but they'll also be exposed to multicultural music and classical theater, community gardening and social-emotional learning. Yeh emphasized that school should get you ready for life, not just push the accumulation of information. "This goes back to brain research," she said. "The first five years are so important to developing who you are." In that vein, 9th Bridge's nine teachers have been tasked with identifying and nurturing all learning styles. It's an effort to flip the public school default that one approach works for everyone. Such specialized attention does come at a price. Without scholarships (for DTP and Zappos employees and "neighbors" of the school) or financial aid, tuition is $13,000 to $15,500. That—and the address in Downtown's hinterlands—might explain why 9th Bridge opened August 26 with only 15 students. It's equipped for 50, and the plan is to grow by at least one grade every year until the entire neighborhood is a learning hub that can take a child from infancy through high school. To DTP's critics, that sounds like master planning a populace, like "intentional design" could go way beyond the trike track. There is a vision, of course, but the 9th Bridge team insists it will remain as pliable as the brains of the 4-year-olds who were already learning above their developmental age group in the first week because their teacher didn't put a cap on their abilities. "It's something that's not been done before, so it's a startup on top of a startup," Berry said of the school, admitting that they're risking a lot more than bankruptcy in the education arena. "You don't just fail the business, you fail the children and the families, and that has to be our main focus." During naptime on a recent Thursday, 9th Bridge staffers were gathered in a conference room, joking around over lunch and talking seriously about the events of the morning. Teachers have designated time every day to talk about what worked and what didn't, something kindergarten teacher Bethany Wetmore said she has never seen and just one aspect of 9th Bridge she thinks she should have learned while 9TH BRIDGE PHOTOS BY STEVE MARCUS Delivering happiness, sure. But education? Of Tony Hsieh's many multimillion-dollar promises through the Downtown Project, that one seemed like the biggest stretch. What does a tech mogul know about building a school? Hsieh is a conduit. What he knows is how to attract dynamic experts to ambitious projects, though he doesn't believe institutional knowledge is the only asset. Maybe that's why he put his cousin Connie Yeh in charge of DTP's education arm and mission to build not just a cutting-edge school, but one that would shift paradigms. "A lot of innovation comes from those who aren't in the industry thinking about it in a different perspective," Yeh said of the wide-open mentality of 9th Bridge, DTP's early childhood education center for infants up to kindergartners in a historic former church on Ninth and Bridger. "We thought about how cool it would be to teach kids early on to embrace that it's okay to fail and learn from your mistakes, the idea of resilience and collaboration, learning by doing." A graduate of the Wharton School, Yeh was a derivatives trader on Wall Street when Hsieh asked what she really wanted to do. She said: "Teach." Ironically, she's spent the past year learning about everything from brain plasticity to the optimal shape of a trike track because, according to her, every detail of 9th Bridge is intentional. That's especially clear in the physical environment and its recurring themes of natural light, vibrant color and connectivity between classrooms and to the outdoor spaces and surrounding neighborhood. Technology is woven into the background, from the fingerprint-verification system to mic-equipped observation nooks. Yeh doesn't have children, but she calls the campus her baby. The site appraised for close to $2 million, and while the school didn't disclose how many more millions have been sunk into its creation, the remodel alone suggests that the investment is significant. That's the beauty of being a for-profit institution backed by Tony Hsieh. Sexy building aside, DTP's goal was to redefine school. So Yeh took stock of the best of what's out there and then brought Meg Murray and Etola Berry onto her research team to brainstorm what could be. Murray has a doctorate in education and experience opening schools and as an entrepreneur. Berry has specialized in early childhood education for more than a decade. They assembled think tanks of experts in neuroscience, positive psychology and educational areas from curriculum to sustainability to help design an original learning model focused on creativity and entrepreneurship—DTP's signatures. "We were starting literally from a blank slate," Yeh said. "It's definitely been daunting, but it was really exciting." After months of research (including an all-ages community idea dump on Post-it notes), Yeh's team worked on state licensing, business planning and enticing outstanding teachers from all over the country. Murray said they got strong positive reactions from inspectors with the Department of Education and Childcare Licensing Division, and that after its first year, 9th Bridge will seek accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. "Trying to be innovative yet hold the academic rigor is something you have to be very attuned to," Murray said. "It all starts with 22 LASVEGASWEEKLY.COM SEPTEMBER 12–18, 2013 22-23_Feature_20130912.indd 22 9/11/13 4:29 PM

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