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By C. Jayden Smith

The culmination of a lifelong dream finally became a reality for three longtime friends on Wednesday, Sept. 7, as the school they founded in San Clemente held its first day of class.

Kendra Azure, Marissa Goldenstein, and Dr. Meera Kharbanda came together around early 2021 to start InWonder Academy, an independent school, to provide students with the opportunity to learn in a safe space and have a say in their education, with the kind of environment that the three didn’t experience as children.

“It was kind of a meeting of the minds at the right moment, where we all met for dinner, and we were all feeling like, ‘We need a new school,’ ” Goldenstein said.

The confluence of the group becoming parents and the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic helped them to recognize a societal shift toward identifying alternative forms of education, learning needs, and supporting both students and families that all experience life differently.

They saw an opportunity to contribute to people and the community at-large and to fulfill their own passions, and thus pooled their money into building and developing the school.

Azure and Kharbanda have been friends since kindergarten and their days as Girl Scouts before meeting Goldenstein at Mission Viejo High School, from where they all graduated. The trio went on to earn their undergraduate degrees at Chapman University, with each either majoring or earning a minor in psychology.

Azure, the director of education, taught abroad before earning a master’s degree from Antioch University, while Goldenstein, director of community, went to San Diego State University to earn her master’s degree in experimental psychology and earned a master’s in business administration from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Kharbanda, director of operations, graduated from Pepperdine University with a master’s in public policy and a doctorate in education leadership from the University of Southern California.

(From left) A group of lifelong friends and Chapman University graduates—Kendra Azure, Marissa Goldenstein, and Dr. Meera Kharbanda— cofounded InWonder Academy, a private school dedicated to providing a more inclusive and universal learning environment entering its first school year. Photo: Courtesy of Marissa Goldenstein

After taking separate paths at various institutions and locations to earn post-graduate degrees and gain experience in education, that fateful dinner sparked the pursuit of an endeavor that enabled them to use what they had taken years to develop.

“We all brought this different perspective to it,” Goldenstein said, adding: “I think that we all enhance each other’s vision.”

Azure, the school’s director of education, said they were familiar with the San Clemente area, believing it was the best location to implement the nature-based and place-based learning she had learned about while earning her master’s degree in education.

“One of the things that I think really drew us to this location was partially the climate and the weather and the environment,” she said. “It’s because it’s so important for us to get outside and to go into the community for some of our learning. This gives us a really ideal place to do that.”

Along with co-teacher Lynn Herzberg, Azure will teach InWonder Academy’s first class, which will consist of transitional kindergarten and kindergarten students, as the school looks to add a new grade each year before eventually reaching sixth grade.

The group wants to lay the foundation for future teachers, which involves Azure having personal classroom experience to touch on, and to establish their values of promoting empathy and creative problem-solving.

“It’s really important for us to build an intentional culture,” Goldenstein said. “Our culture is centered around values that we’ve all kind of been developing ourselves, and we’re spreading that out to our students and our family partnerships.”

Those values also include health and wellness, as school days will start with an optional “Mindful Morning” session, in which staff, parents, and students can ease into the day with intention.

Parents will be able to have a cup of coffee or tea and enjoy time with their children before leaving. They can also participate in sessions that practice yoga or healthy breathing techniques.

From there, the class will have a morning meeting to discuss goals for the week and connect with each other, a free exploration time for activities that support varying academic disciplines, outdoor time consisting of sensory play, community lunchtime, and project time in the afternoon.

“This is something that we’re really excited about developing,” Azure said. “As we ease our way into the school year, we will have a schoolwide topic for our projects, and then students can decide how they want to engage with that topic or what questions they have about that topic and develop a project based off of that.”

Students will conduct research and experiments over the course of a few months to find an answer or conclusion to their project’s objective.

The curriculum will develop as the school grows, Azure said, in terms of applying literary skills, math, science, and other subjects to the world around the students. She added that a great part of place-based education is that it’s adaptable and works in a number of school settings.

“As we get older, in our grade levels, it just means we have more engaged projects in the community that have maybe more challenging questions for kids to think about and solve,” she said. “It requires a lot of application of those practical skills. It’s going to require, you know, certain math skills that in order to reach the solution, they’re going to have to work together on defining those skills and (utilizing) them.”

Teachers will build a learner profile about each student through ongoing informal assessments and documentation, which will detail what areas students have mastered or are struggling in, both academically and socially.

The group hopes that students will be engaged members of society who are able to make change in the world by the time they leave the community. Starting with developing self-consciousness of emotions and skills in social interaction, they want students to be able to notice how things can be different and feel empowered to act upon it.

“We’re trying to break down, ‘What are the skills we need to be working on with the kids so that they can get to feel that empowerment?’ ” Goldenstein said, adding: “We really try to think about, ‘What does the research say, and how do we really make this happen?”

InWonder Academy differs from both public and other independent schools in the staff’s capacity and emphasis on supporting each child and meeting their unique learning needs, and in understanding how to bring in the families and make them feel heard, she added.

Regarding the first day of school on Wednesday, the staff said on Tuesday, Sept. 6, that they were excited, happy, and nervous to start, as well as content in their ability to adjust if particular aspects aren’t working the way they’d prefer.

Tuition for InWonder Academy is $17,500 for the upcoming year, but Goldenstein said that they are offering a $2,500 scholarship to families enrolled in the first year that will continue each year they are with the school. They are also developing a foundation that will help provide future funding and scholarships.

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C. Jayden Smith

C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.

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  • If parents put the tuition cost of 17,500.00 in a market rate low cost index fund for 18 years they will be able to pay for college tuition without taking out a loan.

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