Las Vegas’ 9th Bridge School is quite possibly the only American preschool to incorporate lessons from Burning Man into its art curriculum this year.
Of course, the 9th Bridge School isn’t just any school. It’s an “entrepreneurship preschool,” where tots aged six weeks to six years are trained in the confidence-rich, risk-taking spirit required to start a business.
And yes, this includes having students build the mosaic pictured below with help from artists who attended the debaucherous Nevada desert festival beloved by Silicon Valley.
The school was founded in 2013 by Wharton School of Business graduate Connie Yeh, a little more than two years after Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, her cousin, asked what she would do if given the opportunity to do anything in the world.
Then a financial derivatives trader at Citigroup in New York, Yeh told Hsieh she would like to do something in education, despite not having any experience in the field. Hsieh invited her to move west to run the education initiatives financed by his $US350 million investment to revitalize Downtown Las Vegas.
Inspired by non-traditional education philosophies like the Montessori method and the Khan Academy’s YouTube tutorials, Yeh developed a plan to build charter and private schools in the area. Meanwhile, Hsieh gave $US1.5 million to Teach for America to bring 1,000 of its inexperienced, high-achieving teachers to Las Vegas’ existing schools.
Yeh decided to make her first endeavour an entrepreneurship preschool when she came to the conclusion that many of the skills that make people successful in starting a business are the same ones that make them successful in life.
Further, she felt that many of the soft, interpersonal skills that make a good startup founder just don’t get taught in traditional schools.
Today, 9th Bridge has 27 students, whose parents pay annual tuition rates ranging from $US13,250 to $US15,750.
The school’s seven teachers lead five classes in which students are grouped by age: one class of infants, two classes of toddlers, one pre-kindergarten class, and one kindergarten class.
While the parents who send their children to 9th Bridge are a mixture of business owners who came to the city as part of Hsieh’s investment project and non-entrepreneurs, Yeh tells Business Insider in an email that she thinks the parents all share an entrepreneurial spirit and want the same for their children.
On the school’s website, Yeh describes 9th Bridge’s values as such: “My take on being entrepreneurial means having insatiable curiosity, passion, initiative, determination, courage, creativity, optimism … the list goes on and on.”
If you’re wondering what all that entails, Yeh, 31, says it starts with building students’ self-esteem, independence, and problem-solving skills.
Before students are able to talk, the 9th Bridge School teaches them sign language so that they can express their wants and needs, a practice Yeh hopes will give them the confidence to communicate effectively and “make an impact” later in life.
To foster independence, the school tries to make students into active learners by giving them the chance to help devise their own lesson plans.
For instance, one student brought a snail he found on a family trip to class with him, much to the delight of his peers. This led to a unit in which students gave the snail a name (“Turbo”) and took care of it, while learning about its body parts and diet through videos, books, and a lesson in which they created Play Doh snail models.
Students also compose music using iPads and mixers, and build new things out of recycled materials brought to 9th Bridge’s “Repurpose Room.”
“With our commitment to unleashing and fostering the potential in our students, we believe so many positive things will happen when students are engaged in hands-on, meaningful learning experiences,” Yeh says.
In addition to its focus on what Yeh calls “social-emotional learning,” the school also teaches kids traditional academics like science, reading, and maths. And like any good startup’s employees, but perhaps unlike most five-year-olds, the academic progress of 9th Bridge students is tracked with advanced metrics.
“Our students read, write, and talk about a wide variety of books in a range of genres and disciplines, while our teachers systematically assess and use data to improve literacy performance,” the school’s website states.
Yeh says that in the future, 9th Bridge could help the children launch their first businesses by periodically turning the school into a “mini-city” of classroom startups. Potential ideas include selling the food students grow in 9th Bridge’s garden at a farmer’s market and peddling classroom projects at Las Vegas’ monthly art fair.
She plans to grow the school, which has room for 80 to 100 students, by adding one grade annually as the students age.
So far, she says she has been most excited by her students’ experiments with projects of their own creation, and the collaborations she has seen between students and members of the Las Vegas public.
“There are so many opportunities to incorporate tools that can help a future entrepreneur!” Yeh says. “Once our students are older, we envision the surrounding community as the classroom — there are countless numbers of learning experiences all within walking distance.”
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