Lakeland residents Tiffany Thenor and Jessica Zivkovich wanted to prove that “education can be done differently – more peacefully and more joyfully,” in Zivkovich’s words. So they opened WonderHere, which they call a learn-and-play studio, in 2016.
They say they can take the concept further now that they have moved the private school, which centers on children ages 4 through fifth grade, from rented downtown space near the Polk Theatre to a farm they bought off U.S. 98 near Clubhouse Road in Highland City.
“The farm has been such a game changer for our students. It has helped us establish such a peaceful learning environment, and has given students experiences they otherwise wouldn’t have had. Each morning, students begin their day with farm chores and outdoor play. It sets the tone for their day,” said Zikovich, 33.
“There was a buzz of excitement and joy for our new farm and schoolhouse that we are finally able to share with our Lakeland community, and we are still pinching ourselves that this is a reality,” said Thenor, 35.
WonderHere held a grand opening celebration recently on their Colbert Road location, with Mayor Bill Mutz there to cut the grand opening ribbon.
The farm has allowed them to add new programming, including a toddler farm school, monthly book club, nature workshops centered around the outdoors and animals on Wednesdays, Friday school, and afternoon extracurricular activities such as robotics, theater, Spanish and art for homeschoolers. Except for the toddler farm school and community events, the schoolhouse programming is geared towards students ages 4 through fifth grade.
“Our Wednesday workshops … are designed for students to take a deeper dive into nature studies. Our desire with this program is to partner with experts in the field to teach students very specific nature skills they probably can’t get in many other places. For our wilderness workshop, we’ve partnered with a park ranger from Colt Creek State Park,” said Zivkovich, adding that the current session is about wilderness survival and the next session will be about farm animals.
Thenor said their summer camps have been some of their most popular programming. She said the spots usually sell out by mid-March.
Available space in the schoolhouse will be determined in March, after current families have gone through the re-enrollment process, Zivkovich explained.
WonderHere also hosts community events such as a parenting conference, book club parties and spring break workshops.
“At the book club party, you can expect snacks, crafts and activities related to the book we have been reading collectively and then an opportunity for the children to join in on a book talk,” Thenor said.
The owners plan to add a co-working space for parents of children attending WonderHere this fall.
“The idea is that parents whose children attend WonderHere will have a designated place where they can hang out, work remotely, and be in community with one another,” Zikovich said.
The owners met at Southeastern University, where they studied education. They went on to be in each other’s weddings and became teachers in the public school system. As they worked, they both became disheartened by the lack of flexibility and innovation.
“Teaching in the public school system for years, (Jessica and I) experienced the slow and systemic changes created by an unhealthy culture disguised as accountability and progress monitoring. Children unable to play outside for long stretches of time. Little ones in desks, sitting and completing paperwork for hours on end. Experiencing arduous tasks and the push for more rigorous instruction without regard for developmentally appropriate expectations or the simple joys of childhood,” Thenor explained.
This disenchantment with the system inspired them to create WonderHere in 2016 with a few free educational pop-up classes. From there, they created a private elementary school, summer camps, and homeschool enrichment programs. They also created the WonderHere Education Foundation.
“We’ve done significant research on effective schooling systems in the world and decided to adopt the Finnish Learning Benchmarks as a framework for what our students learn, so we use that as a starting point. Then, we often create curriculum based on what kids are interested in, what we are interested in, and what we think there is a lack of content for,” Zikovich said.
Thenor said they left the downtown location because their business grew faster than they expected and they wanted more space for children to play outdoors.
“When we first began WonderHere, we had a dream to establish an urban-based play center where children could experience the walkability of downtown, patronize local establishments for lunch, make Munn Park a classroom for the day and sit on the lawn while studying. But we grew faster than we expected and had not initially prioritized or understood the deep need a child has for access to nature and playing outdoors,” Thenor explained.
Thenor said the pandemic made it clear their downtown location was no longer meeting their needs.
“Our farm location is a story of God’s faithfulness and countless miracles that made this place a reality. Seeing the students learning in the living room, climbing the hundred-year old oak trees, caring for the goats and collecting eggs from the hens … this style of learning in this place is just beautiful and simple and just what is needed,” Thenor said.
Purchasing the farm proved difficult. Thenor said it was a three-year process.
“Countless hurdles, unexpected opposition, and large amounts of funds to be raised. Our community of parents and students (have) been resilient, and we are grateful to finally be here now,” Thenor said.
Polk County Property Appraiser’s records indicate the farm sold for $1.25 milion in January 2022.
Both women are mothers; Thenor has three children under 8 years old, and Zivkovich has two, ages 4 and 2. Thenor homeschools her children and sends them to classes part-time at the school, while Zivkovich said her 4-year-old also attends WonderHere’s minis program.
On top of the new programming, the mothers also sell unit studies and culture anthologies, which help parents educate their children at home.
“As women of color, Jessica and I have a strong passion to educate families on the value and importance of celebrating all cultures represented within our world through positive and accurate resources, activities, and books. Our culture anthologies are careful and intentional collections of stories, article, and ideas shared by mothers, fathers and children to be used in all households as we work together to raise children who are kind and empathetic humans,” Thenor said, adding that she is African American and Zivkovich is Cuban American.
Some of the new unit studies the women are creating include personal finance, Black history and immigration.
WonderHere is hiring for its events team. Its third annual parenting conference, CHILDHOOD, is happening April 21-22. It’s a family-friendly event for families from all over, designed to allow attendees to hear from parenting experts about trends. While the parents attend the conference, children are invited to attend the farm’s two-day farm and nature school.
The owners said there may be some instructional openings for the schoolhouse in the fall. They’re looking for Instructors with teaching experience and a certificate.
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