A Taste of À La Carte Learning: THE LIVING SCHOOL

Joelle Smith, founder of The Living School


Joelle Smith’s school-on-wheels is literally a dream come true.

In 2022, Smith had a dream so vivid it woke her at 4 a.m. It built on a vision she had in her 20s before she became a public school teacher, in which she imagined herself leading tours of students abroad. This time, the dream included a bus.

A few months later, The Living School was born.

“It’s about using the world to learn,” Smith said. “It’s about how much we have in our community. We’re such a melting pot here. There’s so much culture. It’s incredible.”

The Living School offers customized field trips that Smith calls “missions.”

All but two of her students have special needs, many of them on the autism spectrum. She picks them up in a 14-seat Ford Starcraft, then transports them to parks, museums, nature centers, farms, historic houses, the airport, the beach…

The list is potentially endless. And Smith is just getting started.

Last year, The Living School began with five students. This year, it has 25. The students range in age from 6 to 18. All but one use an ESA.

“I guess I knew the potential, but I didn’t expect it would happen,” Smith said. “It’s a little crazy.”

Smith was a middle school teacher for 13 years. She taught language arts and drama. In 2012, she underwent brain surgery and resigned for medical reasons. She later worked at a tutoring center for home-schoolers.

Leveraging ESAs allowed her to create her own model and shape it in a way that she felt was best for students.

In traditional schools, Smith said, she had little flexibility to personalize instruction and little time to build relationships. For a language arts class one summer, she had to stick to a script administrators handed down for every single lesson.

At The Living School, she said, “I do’nt have to follow anybody’s pace. I can meet the kids wehre they are. It’s night and day.”

Before each trip, Smith works with parents to personalize a lesson plan for their child. Do they want the focus on certain academic subjects or on non-academic subjects? She ties the list of subject areas to the theme of the day’s visit and assigns readings and exercises that bridge the two.

For a recent trip to Butterfly World, a younger student was assigned a word search related to butterflies to work on vocabulary and motor skills. An older student was assigned a graphing exercise for math and an article on butterfly migration that Smith supplemented with questions to answer in writing.

Life skills are a big part of the mix. One of Smith’s students is 14 years old and already taking and excelling in classes at a state college. But his family wanted more opportunities for him to mingle with other kids. “So he comes to socialize,” Smith said. “And he does a lot of that.”

The Living School takes students to educational destinations all over South Florida, including Butterfly World in Coconut Creek, home to a butterfly house and research center, botanical gardens, and aviaries.

Sharon Ayalon said she enrolled her son Ben, 16, in The Living School last fall and “it saved our lives.”

Ben is on the autism spectrum. He struggles with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. He attended four private schools before The Living School. None of them worked.

“My son is not a sit-in-a-classroom kind of child,” Ayalon said. “When he’s forced to sit in a typical environment, it will not only not click, he’ll have behavior issues. He has to move.”

At Ben’s last school, incidents like spitting and throwing things escalated. Ayalon said she knew she had to make a change and, in researching alternative schools, came across The Living School. Many schools would not have given her son a shot, Ayalon said. But Smith told her, “Let’s give it a try.”

The result? For the first time in his life, Ben is excited to go to school. His behavior issues have disappeared, both at home and at the private school he attends part-time using the ESA.

Ayalon credited Smith’s approach and Ben’s field-trip peers, who she described as role models for him.

The change is “beyond learning,” Ayalon said. “It’s the happiness on his face.”

Smith said she’s thrilled and terrified about the path she’s on.

She knows she and other teacher entrepreneurs are in uncharted territory. At the same time, creating her own thing has been a rush.

“When I look out and see my students interacting with each other, I’m just filled with complete and utter joy,” Smith said. “This is what I get to do every day.”

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director of Research & Special Projects at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times).