Michael and Iara Gustafson started Atlas Academy in September of 2018 (then known as Dracut Children’s House) for their son Kash, who was one-and-a-half at the time. Now Kash is 3 years old, and they have a new baby named Kaia!
Prior to that, Michael was a Kindergarten teacher for four years in Dracut. During his time there, he earned a Master’s degree in Early Childhood Education, and he tutored students on the side in all grades up through high school.
One day, in June of 2018, Michael submitted his resignation letter to his principal, and drove down the street to sign a lease with the building owner at 112 Sladen St. in Dracut.
It was a big leap, but Michael and Iara were willing to risk it all to build a school for their son.
They started in an empty building with no students; and now they are in their third year with 4 classrooms and over 60 students ranging from toddler up through 3rd grade.
Looking forward, they will continue to grow and add grades each year up through high school.
Their goal is to build a school to educate children from birth to maturity.
Michael and Iara Gustafson are still at the beginning of a big project to provide the best education possible for their children, and for other families in the area.
Our vision is to build the highest quality school imaginable for children from birth to maturity. For each student, our vision is a straight path of healthy, natural development towards their full potential as a unique individual. Our pedagogical vision is to advance Maria Montessori’s method of Scientific Pedagogy, and to broaden its scope to aid development all the way into maturity. Our organizational vision is to have an internal culture of science and collaboration; and a strong sense of community among all teachers, students, and parents.
Natural Development: This is our term for the aim or purpose of education. We believe that human development is a natural process, but that does not mean that it is automatic and it does not mean that it is unerring. Natural development is not automatic, it requires effort, work, will, and motivation on the part of the child. And it is not unerring, it requires specific “means of development” which adults must discover and develop.
Scientific Pedagogy: This is the method by which we seek to help children to develop naturally. Maria Montessori called her method “scientific pedagogy”; it was others who coined it as the “Montessori Method”. The method consists of two parts: (1) observation and (2) experimentation. First, we observe the children within a prepared environment, and then we experiment by making changes to the environment–all with the aim of giving children what they need to develop naturally.
Autonomy of the Child: This is our belief that only the child can do the work of development. Our work, as educators, is to provide the conditions for development; but it is each individual child who puts in the effort and work to grow and develop.
Freedom AND Structure: This is the basic principle of our prepared environments. Since the child is autonomous, he must be free to act upon his own will. At the same time, he must find in his environment the proper “nourishment” for his growing soul. The environment–the materials, teachers, and other students–is given a structure which is experimentally determined. For example, Maria Montessori discovered that four and five year olds need a hands-on, structured math curriculum to help them discover arithmetical relations. In short, the environment has a very definite, specific structure; but, at the same time, the child is free.
Developmental Stages: We believe that the general needs of children are determined by their stage of development. We believe that each stage of development is significantly distinct; requiring vastly different pedagogical approaches. We believe that there are three broad stages of development, named by Maria Montessori by the type of “mind” the child has during each stage: (1) the Absorbent Mind from 0-6; (2) the Reasoning Mind from 6-12, (3) the adolescent stage (which she did not name) from 12-18. Going deeper, there are further subdivisions of these stages. The infant/toddler years from 0-3 require a vastly different pedagogy than the “Primary” years from 3-6. And there are also significant differences between the needs of “Lower Elementary” (6-9) and “Upper Elementary” (9-12) students. A large part of our internal collaborative work is to define the general developmental needs at each stage and experiment with ways of helping children to meet those needs.
Pyramid of Student Experience: Safety - Happiness - Engagement - Growth. The most important aspect of our student's experience is that they are safe, and that they feel safe. After that, we want to ensure that they are happy, comfortable, feel at home, and look forward to coming to school everyday. Next, we want to make sure that students are engaged as much as possible throughout the day. And, ultimately, all of these elements lead to each child's growth.
Quality Improvement: At all times, we have several quality-improvement measures in place. At the moment, we have projects to (1) improve the quality of our assessment system, (2) update our parent and staff hanbooks to improve operations, (3) develop a system for ongoing professional development for all staff.
Collaboration: We recognize that each member of our team (administrators, teachers, and support staff) has a valuable role to play in ensuring a high quality experience for all students. We carve out time in our schedules for regular meetings to share insights and troubleshoot challenges. We hold regular staff meetings to make sure we’re all on the same page. We keep a steady input of new ideas from readings, videos, and discussion. Finally, staff evaluations are a way to give more purpose and structure to our collaboration.
Community: We are building a community around the shared value of high quality education. Each parent at Atlas Academy takes their child’s education seriously. We all want the best education available for our children. And we won’t settle for less. We believe that education plays a significant role in our child’s future success and happiness, and we believe that the Montessori approach, in general, is the best method available for ensuring future success and happiness. At the same time, we all want our children to have a pleasant and enjoyable school experience day in and day out. We want them, every day, to be happy, kind, sociable, and interested in their work. Most of us believe that, to some extent, the typical “traditional education” approach will have a dampening effect on our children’s uniqueness, individuality, spirit, etc. More fundamentally, to some extent, we all truly believe in the unlimited potential of our children and the crucial importance of helping them to reach such potential during their formative years.