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Hands-on learning is the focus at Spartek Academy in Columbia

Education entrepreneur Janear Garrus founded a school where students learn by doing: "We are pushing and cheering on innovation and trying to reach conclusions not based on what someone else has done, but based on your own experience."

Janear Garrus is the founder of Spartek Academy. (Courtesy photo)
Janear Garrus made the decision to homeschool her children, but that didn’t mean learning was only taking place at home.

She sought out community with others, attending events and summer camps to provide additional enrichment. An entrepreneur, Garrus organized the events. She founded the Chesapeake Education Alliance in 2015, which organized the Baltimore Children’s Business Fair and Launch Business Camp, then hosted a digital media academy at George Washington University.

They all provided hands-on experience, but each were in different place. With more and more events, Garrus found herself wanting to house all of those in one place.

“Instead of kids having to get it from a camp, a workshop or a one-time experience, I wanted to opportunity to have more hands-on [experiences], more of the year,” she told Technical.ly.

It led Garrus to start Spartek Academy, a Columbia-based private school that’s centered around hands-on instruction. After receiving state certifications, it opened Sept. 1 with eight students in grades K-8, and is looking to expand with students as they grow. An affiliate of Austin-based Acton Academy, the one-room schoolhouse is a multi-age classroom. Alongside reading, writing and math instruction, students spend about 75% of their time on hands-on projects like building a catapult, starting a newspaper or learning about the scientific properties powering cars.

“It has been really interesting to see how the younger ones learn from the older kids and vice versa,” Garrus said, adding that the focus is on “finding what they’re good at as early as we can and allowing them the space and the opportunity to work in those areas.”

Garrus, who is currently leading the class, serves as a guide. With each new project, she doesn’t share everything the students need to know. Rather, she shares enough to get started, and offers access to the tools that can allow students to complete research and find answers. This can range from edtech resources from Khan Academy to navigating to YouTube on a Spartek-issued Chromebook. Students reach mastery in an area, they don’t receive a grade.

“We are pushing and cheering on innovation and trying to reach conclusions not based on what someone else has done, but based on your own experience,” Garrus said.

At the same time, Spartek is continuing its work in the community. It is hosting a popup centered on architectural gingerbread houses on Saturday Dec. 18, at the Howard County Public Library in Columbia at 3 p.m. In January, it plans to launch after-school programming focused on STEAM activities at its campus in Columbia.

Growing in a Baltimore community that has a rich history in edtech and home to education programs that embrace entrepreneurship and innovation-centered learning models, Garrus’ community organizing experience and the school’s sustainable approach stand to propel Spartek to become a hub for this work in Howard County.


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