Holistic Learning at NELA

posted by Darilyn Hackett, Principal of NELA

The 2020-21 school year was one of intentional change at Nueva Esperanza Leadership Academy (NELA). Our mission is that all students are known deeply, loved unconditionally, and learning holistically. This past year, we decided to deliberately design our instructional time with the purpose of more authentically living out that mission.

Our weeks were an eclectic mix of teaching the Bible, academics, the arts, and social emotional learning. This curriculum was not so different from what had been previously taught, but the proportions were. We did social emotional learning instruction for 9 hours per week—almost a third of our total instruction time. This meant 9 hours less of traditional academic instruction. With a yearly goal of making sure all students are working at grade level in both reading and math, a radical change like this seemed a bit scary. However, our team was determined to prove that small class size would enable connection that maximizes each student’s individual gifts. We focused on expanding interpersonal communication skills and embracing the beauty of humility and service to others in a Christ-like manner. We hoped that nurturing the whole of their persons would result in growth across the board—even with their academics.

The academic achievement of NELA’s students this past school year was extraordinary! They grew an average of 1.6 years in reading and 2.5 years in math (compared to the normal expectation of one year of growth). Eighty-six percent of our students are at grade level in both subjects, with the majority working above grade level in at least one subject area. Our emphasis on cultivating a growth mindset in each child equipped them to face the challenges of academic rigor, in addition to being better able to focus, because their emotional needs were always being cared for.

During a global pandemic, in a cohort of multi-aged students, and with everyone masked and seated 6 feet apart, our staff and students built a community of safety and connection where each child was able to thrive. The 2020-21 school year was certainly a year like no other for all students around the world… but I can joyfully say that it was a year like no other for our NELA students.

With the new school year set to commence in a couple of weeks, we will take the lessons learned from our epic year and build upon them as we move to our beautiful new school at Leo Center. Our most important lesson is that social emotional learning and relationship building are not done at the expense of high academic achievement. Instead, students flourish when their needs for safety and connection are met, their dreams are valued and encouraged, and they see themselves as an important member of a community.

Servant Leadership preparation is the cornerstone of this holistic approach at NELA. During the third trimester, each student completed an individual passion project to demonstrate how they use their interests and talents to serve others. We had wonderful examples from our 5th and 6th grade group: a talented drawer created a coloring book for younger children; a gifted athlete planned the end-of-year field day activities; and a reflective writer encouraged others through her words. Here is one of her poems.

 On a Starry Night
 On a starry night,
 I see lights shining bright
 Not the streetlights
 Not the headlights.
 But the lights of curiosity,
 I look closer
 Feel my dreams coming closer
 To my surprise
 I’ve found a light
 A light so bright
 Shining in the night.
 Stands out with a gleam,
 A shooting star it seems.
 I want to make a wish,
 Then I realize I have all I need
 On a starry night.
 By Nataly Romero, age 10 

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