LEESBURG, Fla. – Nicole Duslak is living her dream. The artist and educator stood at the front of a classroom at CREATE Conservatory in Leesburg. The K-5 nonprofit school she runs is the result of years of study, experience and what she calls “a perfect storm of circumstances.”
The lesson during our visit was a study of lizards and other reptiles. The class was small with less than a dozen kids. It looks like a typical classroom, encouraging posters line the walls, there are bookshelves and plenty of art supplies. But there’s not a school desk in sight. Instead the kids can sit on couches, the floor or bean bags.
“We don’t want them to sit in a desk all day,” Duslak continued. “We don’t even have desks here at CREATE.”
Duslak guided the class as they used construction paper, glue and crayons to make artful 3-D representations of the animals.
“Who can tell me, are lizards vertebrates or invertebrates?” she asked. The kids all respond with their thoughts. “What environment will your lizard live in?” she continued. The question lead to conversation about how the environment might influence their color.
The school uses an approach called arts integration to teach S.T.E.M subjects.
“We teach science and math and reading and all those other subjects through drawing and dance and singing and painting and movement,” Duslak said. “It isn’t a new concept. It’s been around since the 70s but it’s very unique to find a school that uses it as it’s driving force behind the curriculum.”
It’s also unique to find a nonprofit private school where 93 percent of the students pay little to no tuition. This is thanks to funding from private donors, corporate sponsors, and the Step Up for Students Scholarship Program.
“I have a tendency to think with my heart and not always with my brain,” Duslak said. “For me, it became about this passion I have and this desire for all kids to be able to have the highest quality education whether they can afford it or not.”
Duslak has a degree in fine art, she was a principal and has taught on all levels of primary education.
“I constantly found myself becoming really frustrated with the system and the curriculum and the demands that were being put on myself and other educators,” Duslak remembered. She thought kids were being tested on their ability to memorize facts and not on their understanding. “Kids need to be free to move and to think and to explore and to get messy and make mistakes,” she said.
Her frustration turned to action when her son, Avery, was struggling in conventional classrooms.
“There’s no greater motivator in the world than seeing your own child come home every day not okay,” Duslak said.
CREATE Conservatory began operating last year surpassing Duslak’s wildest expectations.
The school administered two Iowa Assessments, which are nationally norm-referenced tests. In reading, the student average went from the 30th to the 82nd percentile. Math scores started in the 22nd percentile and ended in the 85th, and reading/ELA/math combined averages began at the 24th percentile and rocketed to the 90th percentile. Duslak said CREATE students showed three years worth of growth in one year.
Llara Weaver said her daughter Amalie (8), who has ADD, is thriving in the creative environment.
“At the end of the year when we got the testing results back I knew right away that she was in the right place and she was doing the right things.”
Duslak said the school is catered specifically to children who are gifted, talented, and creative but she’s seen success with other kids like Amalie who have learning challenges.
“Nicole gets results,” Weaver said. “It comes naturally to her. They are being given the skills on their own through her guidance, her teaching, her methodology.”