Las Vegas Sun

December 1, 2015

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Zappos school planning builds ‘excitement around education’


Joe Schoenmann

Rich Demato leads a group of parents and children Wednesday night at the site of an old Baptist church that in August will become a school funded by Downtown Project. The tuition-based school will be open to everyone.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of, poses in the Ogden in downtown Las Vegas Thursday, June 7, 2012.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of, poses in the Ogden in downtown Las Vegas Thursday, June 7, 2012.

This is how you make a school. At least, it’s how you make a school when Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and the Downtown Project are involved.

At the site of a former First Baptist Church at Ninth Street and Bridger Avenue in downtown Las Vegas, kids began the night by sitting dutifully with their parents at tables adorned with Legos, markers, Play-Doh and sticky notes.

By the end of the session a few hours later, the handful of kids were coming up with ideas that hadn’t dawned on many of the adults. And they were scolding the parents for taking so long to brainstorm.

Rich Demato is co-founder of the workshop and was hired by the Downtown Project to push forward and shape the ideas of dozens of people who have spent many months creating what an innovative downtown school would look like. At the session this week, Demato said the kids were “racing up and writing down these great ideas.”

One was for the school to create themed rooms; so one room, for instance, might be watery in some fashion and teach all about water; maybe there’d be a Legos room for, what? Maybe math? Art? There’d be a plant room, and on and on.

“Adults overcomplicate things,” Demato said, paraphrasing what the kids were saying. “They should be more simple.”

Creating a school, however, is no simple prospect.

In March 2011, Hsieh invited Zappos employees who wanted to be part of creating a downtown school to his home to brainstorm. They spent three hours coming up with mission statements and ideals, ways they would like a school to function if they were in charge. One person said it should operate like an online university; creativity and community were dominant themes.

Over time, the realization came that community involvement was crucial, but so were experts in education, in how the brain works and how it learns, in curriculum and creative thought.

Connie Yeh, who left her corporate job in New York City a year ago to work for Downtown Project as head of Project’s Education Initiative, and Meg Murray, who has a Ph.D. in education and is the lead researcher and school designer, helped create two think tanks connecting experts in education from around the world.

One of those experts, Trish Martin, president of Literacy Brain Connection LLC, started the night with a quick YouTube video that explored the exponential growth in the use of technology and the need for tech experts around the world.

“We have to change the way education looks,” she said after the video. “Our world is going to be different for your children.”

Yeh and Murray are in charge of making sure this new school, which has yet to be named, comes to life in August. They’ll start interviewing prospective teachers in January. The first year will be for students, from 6 weeks to kindergarten age. Then it will grow grade by grade.

“We want the students to be able to grow with the school,” Yeh said.

The school will undertake common core curriculum requirements, Martin said, but school creators also plied information researchers in neuroscience and neurolearning to understand how the brain learns.

Murray said they also pored over information from experts in the field of positive psychology, a key to creating a positive environment in the classroom.

With those elements, a curriculum is being devised, honed and finalized, Murray said. When the curriculum is finished, Martin said she believes this downtown school will be unique in the country for employing neuroscience and learning — teaching classes in ways that fit with how the brain learns — and paying special attention to positive psychology.

“We have the opportunity to start with a clean slate,” she said. “Las Vegas is dying for some kind of excitement around education.”

The next day, over coffee downtown, the excitement of the previous night was still palpable to Demato, who travels around the country with his creative agency helping companies catalyze ideas into actions with an eye toward social change.

“I haven’t seen anything else like it,” he said of what’s happening in Las Vegas, where the creation of “collisions” between so many different people in different fields is taking place, much of it with the help of the Downtown Project.

Demato beamed in recalling the children racing around and coming up with the most creative ideas the previous night.

“If this is going to be the most community-focused city in the world, you have to walk the walk, you have to involve the community,” he said. “I saw that happening last night. This school will connect with the community.”

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