Until March 2020, Mikala Streeter served solely as the founding principal of The LIFE School, a project-based independent high school in downtown Atlanta.

Then the pandemic hit, and calls started coming in from her high school students’ families. Could Streeter do anything to support their younger children, who were now at home all day, stuck on screens? Already used to wearing many hats as a high school leader, Streeter decided to add one more.

Today, Streeter is the co-founder of the Zucchinis Homeschool Co-op, a parent-led school serving 4-10-year-olds that operates out of the same building as The LIFE School and mostly serves younger siblings of the high school students. Some families unenrolled their children from their schools, which were doing remote instruction, and other families enrolled their children in school for the first time.

Streeter always hoped to serve younger students by adapting the individualized approach that has worked well for the high school students, and the pandemic — and a grant from VELA, in coordination with 4.0 — dramatically accelerated her timeline.

The Life School for VELA, Atlanta, GA, December, 2020. Photography by Chris Aluka Berry/AlukaStorytellingPhotography.com

“For the younger children, the challenge is sitting in front of a computer all day, and we wanted them to be able to have an in-person community where they could still be safe and we could still have all the precautions that are necessary,” she said. “Their families wanted their children to be able to participate in the same hands-on, project-based learning that the families love about the high school and that they know really works for students.”

Zucchinis — Streeter came up with the name while grocery shopping — serves about 10 children, most of whom are Black. Most students come from low- or middle-income families. Zucchinis costs each family about $350 a month, with financial aid available. The offering allows families, many of whom are essential workers, to ensure their children can continue developing while they are at their job.

Khabral Muhammad, the lead instructor for The LIFE School who became a co-founder of the co-op, sends his son to the program, which he called a “necessity.”

“We decided to create a space in a building that we already have, and maximize it, allowing parents to have a say on how their child’s day goes and to be able to contribute to a broader community from their own level of expertise,” he said. “We have parents who have their own catering companies and they can come in and teach the basics of cooking and what makes certain flavors go well together. And then I like to get into the science of it and talk about the chemistry behind what’s happening. What are the reactions that are going on?”

Streeter and Muhammad designed Zucchinis to outlast the pandemic. The model is a version of how their high school students learn, with hands-on learning opportunities (the class has pet turtles and grows its own plants, among many other examples) and an emphasis on constructing understanding together.

“They have the animals that they take care of, the bunnies and the fish and the turtles, and even math and English and language arts, it’s all around discussion and how do we create something? How do we make something? How do we share ideas?” Streeter said.

“It’s not just sitting in a seat and listening to a lecture. Whether you’re five years old or 15, we want students up and moving and having some flexibility to get the blood moving in the brain and know how to make those connections. We don’t see learning as a solitary act that a student is doing independently. They’re not sponges that are absorbing information. They’re living, breathing people who have their own ideas to share. How we learn together is really important to us.”

Follow Zucchinis on Instagram at @zucchinisatl. Contact hello@velaedfund.org to share your own out-of-system innovation.