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Meet John Thoms of Roving Learners

Today we’d like to introduce you to John Thoms.

Hi John, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstory.
Kaysie Fernandez and I both have a long history in public education; teaching in schools and providing district-wide coaching to teachers, admin, counselors, etc. on addressing student behavior and academic needs. We started a business coaching private and charter schools as well. One of the schools we worked with, Integrity Academy, closed down abruptly. During the final meeting at Integrity Academy, I announced that if there were four families that would sign up, I would start a new school, the Roving Learners, buy a van and focus on experiential and outdoor learning. Enough families showed interest, so we bought a van. Five weeks later, we started the 2018-2019 school year.

Roving Learners opened for the first day on August 18, 2018. One of the families traded a portion of tuition as rent in their Air BnB, which became our first home base. Kiddos were dropped off and picked up at the home base. We stayed there two days a week to focus on academics, reading, writing and math. We took excursions in the van three days a week; visiting libraries, museums, businesses, the courthouse, the state Capitol, greenbelts, creeks, etc. Academic days revolved around excursions. Students previewed excursions (reading), often took field notes during the excursion (note taking) and wrote about the experience. The older students even started a blog, the Rovers’ Report.

The crew of Roving Learners grew within a few months. We incorporporated a peer learning model where older students partnered with younger students on excursions. Older students learned about the responsibilities of providing care for another person. The younger students had someone to go to immediately rather than waiting for me to attend to their needs or wants.

We hired another teacher, Lulu, to work with the kiddos who are developing reading, writing and math skills. She graciously came out of retirement to join the crew. Lulu is my mother and one of my foundational influences on how and why to be a teacher. I was thrilled when she agreed to work at Roving Learners. Due to the low student:teacher ratio, we are able to provide individualized instruction to each student.

We moved the home base location in our second year. One of the families kindly donated a studio space in their backyard and access to use restrooms in their house. Their generosity allowed us to keep an anchor of a home base rather than being 100% roaming school. Things were looking up for Roving Learners, we were attracting more students, hired another teacher for the excursion days (Lulu only attends academic days), and exploring all over the Austin area. Then COVID hit.

COVID put a damper on things during the spring of our second year. We didn’t miss a day though. As so many other schools, we quickly learned how to Zoom and conduct our business virtually. We took virtual tours of museums around the world, explored under the Puget Sound in Washington State, took pictures of trees and worked to identify them, played with miniature photography, etc. The focus on reading, writing and math never faltered either.

Our third year has focused on the theme of Surviving a Global Pandemic. We started in person, physically distanced and wearing masks. Everyone sprays their hands with rubbing alcohol throughout each day. Keeping safe and still rolling along. Our excursions are limited to outdoor activities, mostly located in the central Austin area as families have been dropping off at the excursion sites. They have explored Barton Creek Greenbelt weekly for months. They have learned how to successfully find their way back to the trailhead as they explore various trails and build their mental map of the greenbelt. We are finally going to be able to start our rock climbing excursions this summer now that we’ve once again been able to hire a teacher for the excursion days.

We hope and plan to resume normal activities, riding in the van and expanding our excursions again starting in the next school year, August 17, 2021.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
It has been a mixed bag, but overall, pretty smooth going. We started quickly, but with the faith and support of our community we have been able to continue to grow and thrive, even through Covid. It is important for us to keep our prices affordable and to work with families who feel we are a good fit for their child while maintaining affordable prices and paying a living wage. It is an intricate balance that we are figuring out. Covid was and continues to be a struggle. We look forward to the day that we can get back to our regular excursions but we are proud of the way we worked through it with our community and we are back to thriving!

Great, so let’s talk business. Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
Many of our families come to Roving Learners because previous school settings have not worked for their child. We strongly believe in public education and think a free and appropriate education should be offered to everyone. However, no school is right for every kid. Kids who have struggled in other settings tend to respond very positively to Roving Learners. Our model was created to address the needs of any student with behavior, social or academic challenges.

We utilize restorative practices in our conversation, processing and resolving harm, building community and addressing personal needs. The aim of restorative practices is to develop community and to manage conflict and tensions by repairing harm and building relationships. This is accomplished both proactively and reactively. One common hallmark of restorative practices is sitting in a circle – a way to show everyone is equal in the conversation. We regularly find ourselves “circled up” when we are talking outside.

We work directly with families to target specific goals for each student both academically and social-emotionally.

Doing is the best way to learn. This is our motto. Roving Learners engage in experiential learning throughout each week. There are ample opportunities during the excursions, where we find and identify fossils (Texas geology), find and identify stone tools (Texas history), tour McKinney Falls State Park and learn about early settlers in Central Texas Texas History), identify flora and fauna (biology), conduct water quality tests in Barton Creek for the LCRA and conduct regular creek and river clean up (environmental sciences), visit the Texas Memorial Museum and seek help in identifying fossils we have found. We spent many hours in the Bullock Museum focusing on specific exhibits to dig deeper into Texas history. We visited the Travis County Courthouse and had a tour of the 250th District Court by the Honorable Karin Crump. And the list continues. It’s not much different at home base on academic days. Much of the reading and writing during the academic days is based on the excursion experiences. We also pull out our extensive chemistry set on a regular basis. The kids take turns conducting each step of an experiment as they learn about chemistry. The kids tend to the garden and chickens during the academic days at the home base. Everyone takes turns. Teachers are very much hands off. Mistakes are made and learned from.

We treat each student as a unique individual in our approach to learning academically, socially and behaviorally. We focus on their strengths and address any lagging skills. The students seem to respond overwhelmingly positively.

What sort of changes are you expecting over the next 5-10 years?
We believe the industry will continue to grow as families ideas around what education in the 21st century changes.

Pricing:

  • Annual Tuition: $12,600
  • Monthly Tuition: $1,100
  • Daily Tuition: $75

Contact Info:

  • Email: john@rovinglearners.com
  • Website: www.rovinglearners.com
  • Instagram: roving_learners
  • Facebook: @RovingLearners


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