Friday Feature: Roots Academy

Colleen Hroncich

Jackie Gallo’s daughter started kindergarten in fall 2019. “She was doing okay, but I could see the ways that her needs weren’t being met,” says Jackie. Some of the best aspects of her personality weren’t allowed to shine or grow. “It’s like her fire was being put out—and five years old is way too early for that to happen.”

Then COVID-19 struck and the schools shut down. Jackie had started a family‐​wellness space that focused on mindfulness. She did a lot of after‐​school programming and says she’d already seen “a need outside of the school system for a place where children could unwind from the day.” But COVID-19 restrictions prevented her from doing her regular programs. And her husband worked in emergency medicine and told her the restrictions were going to last way longer than two weeks.

Roots Academy was formed from this collision of three things: Jackie had a space that was built for kids, her daughter didn’t have a great experience in kindergarten, and COVID-19 restrictions were causing upheaval. “I found somebody to co‐​facilitate and co‐​teach with me and found five other families for a total of six kids in our first year,” Jackie recalls. “Everybody just wanted our children to have a bit of normalcy and be okay. So there was really low pressure on us that first year.”

Despite the lowkey approach they took that first year, they discovered the kids were still learning—and in really interesting and exciting ways. Plus, they were learning things in less time, which allowed them to spend more time outside and active. “During that time period, a lot of pieces started to click into place for me,” says Jackie.

“It’s really hard to go back into a system that wasn’t working for you,” she adds. “So the next year we moved into a larger space and went from six kids to twelve elementary students. And we’ve kind of grown from there. We’ve added a grade a year. It’s really this living, breathing entity that continues to grow and evolve to support the families that find their way to our community.”

Currently serving grades K‑5, Roots Academy is recognized by the state of Maine as a private school providing equivalent instruction. The twenty‐​five full‐​time students in the microschool are considered private school students. But Jackie takes a flexible approach to her offerings, and some homeschool students attend the outdoor component for enrichment. There are also children from the local public schools that come for afterschool programming.

Jackie’s background is in economics and biology, not education, and she says that has helped her structure Roots in a way designed to meet the needs of children and families. Her previous work in clinical science research involved determining best practices and sharing that information with an audience.

“I very much frame everything we do through that lens,” she explains. “I think having a background outside of education in that way has been really helpful. I look at everything like a Rubik’s Cube—how can we turn all of these pieces and make them fit together versus this is the prescribed way of doing things. People will often ask us, ‘What pedagogy do you follow? Are you Montessori? Are you a forest school?’ And we’re all of them. And none of them. I think having a strong understanding of a variety of disciplines and then being able to pull from them to meet each child’s needs is really important.”

In keeping with her flexible approach, Roots Academy teachers use a variety of resources. The reading program is phonics‐​based and Montessori in nature. The math curriculum has changed over the years because they started with one program but found it didn’t work as well for their learners. “Being agile has been really important,” says Jackie. “I think sometimes in bigger institutions there’s such an investment in curriculum and materials that you continue to do something even when it isn’t right sized or the right fit.” There is also an interdisciplinary approach throughout the day, so science, history, reading, writing, and math may be intertwined in various activities.

The daily schedule includes “brain breaks” and dedicated outdoor time. “We have about an acre of outdoor space,” Jackie says. “We’ve spent a lot of time and energy over the last nine to ten months turning our outdoor space into a natural playground. A lot of the work we’ve done is reclaiming the landscape there and it’s turned into a pretty special place with a lot of native plantings and open‐​ended play structures that really lend themselves to the type of education we’re providing.”

“All of our grade levels spend time out in the community on land trust preserve land. Our oldest students spend a full day each week, so they’re out in the field the entire day on Fridays. And our youngest students spend 1/2 day on Thursday out in the field,” explains Jackie. “The goal is really to lay a foundation of understanding in the classroom setting or on our campus. And then when we go out into the field, integrating it and really making that learning sticky so that it becomes a part of them versus something they’re memorizing.”

Roots Academy has four full‐​time staff members and three part‐​time staff members. In addition to each classroom’s teacher, there’s a full‐​time environmental educator who works with all students to make sure the curriculum is integrated in the classroom and when they go out to the field. They’ve also partnered with a small business to offer music education, so the students in each classroom have an hour of music instruction each week. The oldest students can also take private or semi‐​private instrument lessons during the school day.

Jackie encourages parents to trust their instincts if they think their child’s current educational option isn’t working. “As a parent, I knew it wasn’t a right fit before I admitted it to myself. COVID forced me to take a pause and reevaluate things. But I think we have so much information at our fingertips that we often don’t trust our own instincts,” she says. “It is like a big scary leap and what I’ve heard from most people is that it’s the best choice they’ve ever made—because it impacts their home life, too. Everything feels better when the place where your kid spends 40 hours a week is a better fit. School doesn’t have to be something to be endured. My kids are very upset when we have school breaks because they want to be at school, and that’s not something I see from our neighbors who are in the public school system.”

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