New Jersey entrepreneur breathes new life into traditional education models

Tranquil Teachings Learning Center in Monmouth, New Jersey, launched in the fall of 2021 at a time when most public schools were holding fast to COVID-19 protocols. The center operates on a private-membership model with students attending either part time or full time.

The simple answer to what makes Jill Perez tick most likely is the wrong one. Just because she never was a fan of masking youngsters, it’s easy — possibly even appealing — to tag her as a denier, a crank, anti-science, or a threat to Granny.

Just stop.

Summon up something besides reflex, and you’ll discover Perez is, in deep-blue New Jersey, a maverick, a purist, a cheerful iconoclast, and a dreamer.

Also, not incidentally, Jill Perez is a resolutely committed yoga and meditation instructor. Accordingly, anything compromising a student’s ability “to have access to oxygen in every single cell in their body” is a hurdle higher than the Himalayas in her world.

Yes, she launched Tranquil Teachings Learning Center in Monmouth, N.J., in the autumn of 2021 when area schools, public and private, refused to budge on their pandemic mandates, particularly masks and distancing.

For an educator and a mom committed to the gospel of total oxygenation swaddled in energetic social interaction, these dictates simply were too much and too long.

Moreover, they struck Perez as a symptom of a debilitating condition that predated COVID-19 by a generation or more.

“A lot of these institutions have become too political,” she says. “They’re not serving the needs of the children; they’re not serving the needs of the family.”

But wait. There’s more.

“They’re not serving the needs of the teachers that are working there, and I’ve been seeing that happen for a long time,” Perez says. “So, this was kind of in my mind, even before our schools were closed down.”

The wheels began rolling in the 2020-21 academic year. Perez withdrew her two older children from public school over coronavirus mandates, opting for homeschooling. Her two youngest continued to attend a Montessori school that was mask optional.

Like many families, Perez partnered with other parents to organize a small learning-pod community, purchasing a suitable curriculum and hosting round-robin style meetings in their homes for academics, enrichment opportunities, and socialization.

With procedures in place, a pool of students at the ready, and momentum on her side, when mandates remained steadfast in the fall of 2021, Tranquil Teachings was born. In a learning center that operates on a private-membership model (like a gym), students (legally home-schoolers) attend either part or full time.

Everybody moves. Everybody breathes. Everybody thrives.

“What’s different from other places, and what I love,” says Briliana Coleman, whose daughter Sarah attended that first year after the family moved to Bradenton, Florida, “is the kids were exposed to adaptive techniques to adjust to what’s going on in the world, or just daily life.

“They do breathing meditation. They run constantly outside when it’s between classes and recess … You’re allowed to be a human being and enjoy learning.”

Best of all?

“Between a little bit of meditation and breathing and being outside, I know our kids just didn’t get sick at all.” That included older daughter Marley, a high school student who sometimes served as a teacher’s aide.

To see where all this began, roll back 21 years to the earliest weeks of Perez’s teaching career. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Perez’s students had a front-row seat to the defining moment of the still-young century.

Through windows looking east to the Manhattan skyline on a morning brilliant with promise, Jersey City middle-schoolers saw the world change: First, one airliner, then another smashed into the Twin Towers, sending thunder and shock rumbling across the Hudson River, a horrific scene exploding with horror and overwhelming panic.

Amid the tumult and the weeping and the screaming, two students — at least two— fainted. Casting aside her lesson plan, Perez assumed her yoga master persona. She moved among the frenzied group, not simply calling for calm, but demonstrating how to achieve it.

Around her, youngsters gasped in spasms, hyperventilating.

“They weren’t getting oxygen,” Perez remembers, “and that was causing problems … I had the kids relax and breathe deeply.”

That was Round 1 of the Awakening of Jill Perez. Round 2 commenced a week later when schools reopened to students still dazed and jittery about this bizarre new world where strangers flew airplanes into buildings.

“It caused me to reflect about what it meant to be an educator,” Perez says. First and foremost, “I had to make [students] feel safe.”

Certified in math and social studies, Perez relied on her yoga training to set the mood for each class. Breathing exercises slid ahead of algebra formulas, stretching linked arms with the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation, and soothing melodies became the soundtrack to learning.

“Those were fundamental pieces of teaching children that I really didn’t get in my teacher preparation,” she says.

Over the next 20 years, much of it spent in the supervision of student teachers for Rutgers University and Seton Hall, Perez could not help reflecting on the day everything shifted and how — especially in schools — the aftershock of 9/11 urged fresh thinking.

“The greater purpose of teaching,” she says now, “is to show students how to be educated, how to think.”

For Perez, that meant rejecting traditional industrial schooling to “create an experience that is true to who [students] are.”

Coleman, the Bradenton mom, reports daughters Sarah and Marley have adjusted well to their public school surroundings in Manatee County, “But I wish we could have brought Tranquil Teachings with us. Sometimes I miss it so much I just cry.”

In its second year, Tranquil Teachings has acquired acreage adjacent to its rented commercial space, providing sufficient room for romping and a small farm. With a certified horticulturist on board for expert guidance, students plant and harvest seasonally: beans, cabbage, blueberries, peppers, carrots, onions. They’re looking forward to taking their bounty to local farmers’ markets.

“The farm really has been such a blessing and such a gift,” Perez says. “It’s one of the components that makes us really different.”

Tranquil Teachings has 42 students participating this year in grades K-6, with tentative plans for growth. Because her heart always has been with middle-schoolers, Perez has begun talking with her board about expansion. The 1890s farmhouse that accompanied the acreage seems like the perfect long-term home.

Perez laments that the New Jersey Legislature is unfriendly to measures that allow tax dollars to follow students, or even statutes that encourage the private or corporate funding of education savings accounts.

“But I will say,” she adds, “we do have some people in our state senate and assembly who are working to strengthen home school laws because they are seeing the need.”

Jill Perez began seeing the need for new teaching and learning models on the fateful day the towers fell. Inhale deeply. Exhale completely. That’s not a rejection of masks you’re feeling; it’s the head-cleansing rush of innovation.

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BY Tom Jackson

Tom Jackson’s award-decorated 40-year newspaper career featured stops in Washington, D.C., Sacramento, Calif., and Tampa, Fla., his hometown. Follow Tom on Twitter: @ThomasJaxTampa.