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A middle school student takes to the outdoors for an immersive educational experience with La Luz, a Denver micro-school. (Photo provided by Kyle Gamba of La Luz.)

For some kids, every school day can be monotonous. That’s why Kyle Gamba, who has worked in public education for 15 years, started the micro-school La Luz in Denver to ensure education was more than just “kids sitting at desks.” 

At La Luz, kids learn while being immersed in the community, and on the go.  In the past year, 13 students spent weeks at a time outdoors and reported to classrooms at the Denver Zoo and the History Colorado Center. 

“If you’re learning about government and history, it just seems like a way more authentic place to do it,” Gamba said. 

The micro-school for middle schoolers was one of the first grantees of the VELA Education Fund, founded two years ago to provide financial support to alternative education programs. At the time, La Luz received $25,000 in funding — enough to help support Gamba as he left what he called a “cushy” school job and struck out on his own with a new approach to teaching, emphasizing experiential learning, relationship building and character development. 

The VELA Education Fund, in partnership with the Daniels Fund, is now offering $750,000 in grants to educational entrepreneurs in four states, including Colorado. 

The grantees could be awarded up to $10,000 for nontraditional educational programs. Alternate education models could include micro-schools — tiny schools with comparatively few students — and hybrid programs that incorporate both virtual and in-person learning or community-focused learning. 

VELA has previously awarded 1,600 grants nationwide, totalling more than $16.5 million.

Hanna Skandera, president of the Daniels Fund, said the fund is about bolstering innovation and providing new options for students. 

“This investment is about giving choices and opportunities for young people, for families, that maybe the traditional system isn’t working,” Skandera said. 

VELA has also helped other entrepreneurial organizations such as Impact Wyoming, which trains students in developing business plans and pitching their ideas to local entrepreneurs. 

Gamba said he’s seen success at La Luz just by how excited kids are to talk about what they learned at the end of the day. He said parents are so used to kids saying at pickup time that their day was “fine” and they learned “nothing,” that it was a win “that kids were getting back in cars, and happily engaging in conversations with their parents.” 

Gamba added that VELA allowed “the small guys” to go out and try their hands at a program with community support. 

“It’s probably hard to go out, start something just on your own,” Gamba said. “It sure is a lot easier when there’s a community behind it.” 

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Brammhi Balarajan

Email: Brammhi@coloradosun.com Twitter: @brammhi