Episode 78: Bringing Innovation to the Education Sector

Free to Offend Episode 78 | James Lomax, founder of Life Skills Academy

Whether the public school establishment likes it or not, the educational sector is changing. And it’s changing because innovators, entrepreneurs and parents are increasingly operating outside of the government-run system.

James Lomax, founder of Life Skills Academy in Henderson joined the program to talk about his micro-school’s unique approach to teaching – and why the freedom to innovate is so critical to building a better educational future for our children.

Read the Transcript

James Lomax: What’s happening out there. And they gave me a just a crazy look. And their statement was like, we have to have her ready for kindergarten, so that’s what we care about. And inside my heart that didn’t feel right, and I knew we had to do something different.

Michael Schaus: This is Free to Offend. I’m your host, Michael Schaus. Something that I’ve been saying for a while, even pre-Covid, is that education is going to change. Parents are going to make sure that education changes. The way that we’ve been educating folks in the public school system, this kind of manufacturing plants cookie cutter process, one size fits all, just isn’t going to cut it moving forward.

In fact, I’d say that we’re probably about 30 years overdue for some sort of major revolution in this area because look at everywhere else in our world. Customization, individualization is getting more prolific, and yet that hasn’t happened in education.

But now it’s starting to, and I’m not just talking about the school choice options that we see cropping up in various states and state legislatures. No, I’m talking about just new learning models. And that is the reason why I’m very happy to welcome James Lomax. He’s the founder of Life Skills Academy in Henderson, Nevada.

James, thank you so much for joining the program.

James Lomax: Thank you so much for having me. I’m looking forward to the discussion.

Michael Schaus: Yeah, one of the reasons why we wanted to have you on is because within the last few years, we’ve seen kind of a revolutionizing of the way that people think about education. I think Covid had a very big part to do with that.

But what we’re seeing is all sorts of options pop up. In fact, we talked to some people who started a small private school recently. We’ve talked to some people that have been involved with some of the micro schools that have popped up in Nevada. There’s been a whole huge homeschooling resurgence.

Tell me a little bit about Life Skills Academy, what it is that you guys are, what you do and and really why you started it.

James Lomax: Sure. So, Life Skills Academy, of all those categories you just listed, if you had to put us into one, we are a micro-school. Micro-schools can look like a lot of different things, but that’s the best category we fall into.

What we are all about. So we’re part of a larger network of micro schools called Acton Academies. There are about 300 Action academies around the world. So, we’re in almost in every state and 17 different countries.

And really our whole philosophy centers around the fact that we believe children are far more capable than most adults think they are. So, we give children a lot of agency in their learning and also a lot of responsibility and hold them accountable to things.

So really our whole belief is that our current school system was really designed (not even a belief, this is a fact) in the 1890s. Really, it was designed to help us prepare for the industrial age, and yet we’re still using the same model.

So, our model really, we call the one room schoolhouse for the 21st century. So, we’re really trying to give the children those skills they need to go out there and be successful in the 21st century. So that’s to be able to communicate, to collaborate creatively, to problem solve, and to think creatively as well. So, we focus a lot on Socratic discussions.

So, the big why, why I’m doing this, there was a lot of reasons. So, my background I flew F-18s in the Navy for a while. Then after I left doing that, I worked as an engineer for the military as well. And in that engineering job I saw a lot of young engineers who were really, really bright coming out of college and they really had no skills other than taking tests.

So, I was having to retrain them on the basics of just emotional intelligence, relationship management, how to get tasks done without having all the instructions, basic finance, all these life skills that they just didn’t know. So that was kind of my motivation.

And then my secondary motivation was I have two daughters, but my oldest is eight years old. And then when she was getting to be around five, I was seeing, you know, the product and the outcome that was coming out of the local school system, even the private schools. And I knew that I wanted something better for her, so I started searching for options and eventually landed upon the Acton Academy.

Michael Schaus: You know, it is amazing to me. You mentioned private schools. Something that was kind of eye-opening for me. My wife is a private school teacher and she’s been doing that for a few years now, and what I realized was that a lot of the problems that we know exists in the public school system also exists in a lot of private schools.

It’s kind of that administrative bloat but also this approach to education of, “hey, this is the one way that we’re supposed to teach kids.” And as you point out, it’s a relic of the late 1800s. So, it’s right from a time when we were teaching people, “Hey, you’re going to go be factory workers, learn how to do everything all the same way” and everything else. And it really kind of amazes me.

I think one of the biggest reasons we’re seeing so much change in the education space right now is because parents are finally realizing, “Hey, you know what? My kid’s not just a number. You know, my kid’s got specific needs. I need a specific way to teach this child.”

Where do you think that come from? I mean I know Covid helped people kind of realize this, but is this something that you think has kind of been lingering there for years? Or are folks really waking up to the idea that one size doesn’t fit all?

James Lomax: Yeah, I think Covid definitely opened a lot of people’s eyes, but I think it’s almost more of the latter.

I can speak specifically for the parents that are at Life Skills Academy. Almost all of our children, they’re not coming from CCSD schools. Most of them are actually leaving other private schools to come over to us. And the reason is most of our parents are entrepreneurs. They own small and medium businesses, and what they found was, hey, wait, all the things that they learned in school were not the things that made them successful in business.

And then, you know, they’re seeing their children doing the same things and they know that’s not going to set them up for success. So, they’re coming over to do something different. Because you know, with us, entrepreneurship is a big factor of what we do. Like every year, every child starts a business from scratch and sells their products or services.

And so, the things like even our five-year old are learning, you know, most adults haven’t yet figured out. You know, things like opportunity costs and stuff like that. So, the parents just see the difference and see that this is a better way for their children.

And the other side is on the private school, not you’re noting earlier. So I’m also the local recruiter for the United States Naval Academy. And so, I work with probably, you know, a lot of the top public schools, but also all the top private schools in the valley. And just like you said, are they better? For the most part, yes, but they’re still running the same model.

So it’s, the analogy I always give is like, you know, if you want to do a drag race and you have a Tesla versus a Ford Model T you know, you could, you could soup up that model t all you want, but it’s not going to beat the Tesla because you have something, you know, built for the early 19 hundreds compared to something that was built for the 21st century.

So that, I mean, so even the private schools, if they’re running the same model the outcomes are slightly better, but not much.

Michael Schaus: Yeah. And you’re still missing a big thing, the academics might be better. They might be able to do better with the tests or something. But you’re still kind of missing that core component of what I think makes somebody successful when they leave school.

And that’s that entrepreneurial mindset, that’s that culture of individual accountability and stuff. And there are a few schools that are doing that. I mean, the school that my wife teaches at really focuses on individual accountability and personal responsibility. But as you’ve started this you, what year did you guys start? Because you’re still relatively new, right?

James Lomax: Right. This is actually our first year, so we technically started in August.

Michael Schaus: Oh, wow. Okay. So, as you’re starting, as you’re going through your first year and getting your first students through there and everything, what is something that stands out to you in regard to, you said a lot of the times kids are more capable than we as adults really think that they are?

You know, what are some examples of that where kids have really stepped up and you sit back and you look at what they’re doing and say, wow, this is not something that most people would think a, you know, 7, 8, 9, 10-year-old would be able to do.

James Lomax: Yeah. So, the adults run, you know, set the schedule, but the actual execution is up to the kids.

So, a lot of times what happens is there’s some kind of problem we’re seeing from the adult standpoint. And like we have a small staff, we have two other teachers and me, so we’re often racking our brain, like, how do we solve this problem? And the answer is almost always did you ask the children?

So, we ask them, “Hey, we’re having this issue. What do you think we should do?” And almost always, they have this exquisite and simple solution that we don’t even think about because, you know, as adults, we have our boxes. And as children, they have not developed that box. And they don’t think about things the same way with the same constraints.

And so, they can think their way through problems when given the freedom and solve them very easily.

Michael Schaus: I’ve been reading a lot about, and I’ve been talking to a lot of people about what you would call child first learning or social learning or what have you, where really, you’re giving them a whole lot less structure.

But as a consequence, what you see is, you know, children are anxious to learn things. Like this is one of the great things about kids. You know, they’re anxious to go out there and learn things and develop their skills. And if you give them the freedom to do that, they can often do it in ways that, as you point out, you and I would never even really think about approaching.

The families that you guys are getting interested in this school, you mentioned that a lot of them are entrepreneurs. Do you think this is something that kind of can spread out beyond just the people who are already thinking this way? Is this a learning style, for example, that you know, you can start adapting to a broader audience?

Because I think there are a lot of people who, if they’re not an entrepreneur, if they aren’t already in that mindset, this might just not even be on their radar. Do you think this is something that more and more people are going to start adopting?

James Lomax: I think so. I think this is going to take off for quite a lot of people. I don’t believe in, you know, the beauty of micro schools and what I see to be the future of education is you don’t have this one size fits all. Right?

So, this model, do I think it could work for almost anybody? I do, but do I think this is the only way to do it? Of course not. I think, you know, you need plenty of options out there, but you know, our particular parent set has been entrepreneurs. But like I said, you know, I think nation and worldwide, we have over at least 10,000 students right now that are within our network.

So, it is taking off very, very quickly. Within, I think Austin alone, there’s 11 different ones of these micro schools, the Acton Academies, and we have two here in Las Vegas already. So, it’s already becoming quite a thing. It’s just fairly new to Las Vegas.

Michael Schaus: With regards to the one size fits all, you know, this is something that has frustrated me for a long time, and I want to see how you respond. So, a lot of people, when you start talking about the need for various private school options or homeschooling making it easier for folks to homeschool, or in your case, micro schools or pods or whatever you want to say, heir response is, “Well, no, no, no. We need to focus on fixing these public schools because if we just get the right curriculum, if we just get the right funding mechanism, if we just get the right administration, then we don’t need all these other options.”

And usually, my first response to that is, well, even if we had the best school system in the world, there’s still going to be a lot of people, me included, who would not thrive in that particular environment.

Looking at Nevada specifically, where do you think the culture of education is going to go? Because as the rest of the country’s adopted, more and more various school choice programs and what have you, Nevada really hasn’t. And yet, despite not having a huge school choice program, I still see a bunch of different educational alternatives cropping up year after year.

So where do you see Nevada going, regardless of what happens in Carson City?

James Lomax: So, what’s the saying? Necessity is the mother of all invention rights. So, if you look at the traditional academic outcomes, we have, you know, one of the worst public school stations systems in the nation.

And so, and you know, the needs of the southern Nevada community are very unique, I’ll say. So, we actually have one of the strongest communities in the nation of micro schools. And all of those have launched within the, for the most part, the last five years to come in and fill the need. And parents are flocking to them, and it’s just because of, you know, since parents’ needs are not being met in the one size fits all model, so they’re finding alternatives.

You know, we could sit around and wait for the government to kind of catch up, but you know, there’s children that have families that have needs and luckily, we’re trying to be out here filling those needs for them.

Michael Schaus: So, you talked a little bit about your motivation for starting this up, and what I’ve found is a lot of the folks that I’ve talked to that have started schools, whether that be private schools, licensed schools, or you know, even just pods and micro schools usually it comes down to something really personal for them.

I mean, I understand you’re seeing a bunch of people who on paper are very qualified and yet they don’t exhibit the kind of knowledge that you really need in order for them to be successful in life. But, you know, on a personal level the last few years, what finally made you decide, okay, I’m going to go ahead and take the financial responsibility of starting this academy?

What pushed you over the edge there? What was the final thing that said, “Okay, that’s it. Look, family, we’re doing this?”

James Lomax: So, I think, you know, I talked what I was seeing in the job front, but it was really more my family. I am very traditionally educated up through my MBA. So, when my daughter was born, she’s now eight, I was still thinking we need to have her in the best possible schools, and that’s the path to success.

But at the same time, I was starting to figure out like all these things that I’m talking about. Like if you look at the traditional metrics of, wait, look at all the billionaires out there. How many of them even graduated from college? Not many. There’s something to this, like, is this the ideal that we want to be shooting for, you know, the college degree?

And so, my daughter, we put her in the best preschool we could find here. And she’s five, or actually she was three at the time. And you know, I knew the things that started to matter, really, like emotional intelligence and how well you build relationships with people.

And so, when it came time for progress reports, they’re telling me that my daughter is, you know, she’s three and like, “hey, she can only count to a hundred, and we wanted her to be coming to 150. And her Spanish comprehension is behind.” And I was like, okay. I, I don’t care about any of those things.

What I want to know is about what’s happening on the playground. Is she learning how to make friends? Is she learning how to resolve conflict? What’s happening out there? And they gave me just a crazy look. And their statement was like, “We have to have her ready for kindergarten. So that’s what we care about.”

And inside my heart, that didn’t feel right. And I knew we had to do something different. So that was really the final straw that got me going.

Michael Schaus: So, what grades or what ages is Life Skills Academy focused on right now?

James Lomax: So right now, we do ages five through 11. So, think the equivalent of K through fifth. Starting in the fall of 2024, we’ll add up to age 14. And then in 2026 we’ll be all the way up through 18.

So, I’m really excited about middle school and high school ages because we start doing apprenticeships in those ages. And I think those are really powerful.

Michael Schaus: Well, and that was going to be my next question. One of the concerns that people have really with any private school, but especially with schools like yours that are, I mean, very kind of niche people say, okay, well, are those kids really going to be ready for college?

When you get to the point where you’re taking high school aged children, what is really going to stand out that when they go and apply for a college, if that’s the course that they want to go through, that that college is going to say, “oh, okay. Yeah, you definitely are ready for this.”

James Lomax: I love this question. Probably my favorite about our graduates, and I think this’s one of the things that really sold me about this model, the people that graduate from Acton Academies look drastically different from everybody else.

So, the example I give is if you went to a top, you know, conventional private school and you’re applying to Harvard, Yale, or any of those schools, almost everybody who’s applying from those schools looks the same. They all have 4.0’s. They did really well in the SAT/ACT. They have the same list of activities in sports.

Where our graduates look drastically different is they probably scored very well on the SAT/ACT scores. And then the other difference is that, you know, they have a portfolio of actual skills that they’ve done. So, by that point they’ve started at least 10 or 11 businesses and some of those businesses are still going. So, they can talk about their actual experience. They can talk about the apprenticeships they’ve done in the industry.

But the most important thing is why we see most Acton students who don’t go to college. And that’s because actually they don’t need it. But the ones that want to do something, that want to go to college, like, you know, they want to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, they get into college and get scholarships at an exceptionally high rate because we’ve taught them how to talk to adults and how to get what they want.

So, the example I always give is, let’s say somebody wants to be a chemist. So, by the time they’re ready to apply to college, they have decided to go to this particular college, most likely because this particular college has this particular department chair of the chemistry department that’s doing this particular research that I’m interested in.

So instead of like applying, you know, normally, which they’ll do that too, but they’re going to reach out directly to that department chair and say, “Hey, I’ve been following your work. I really love the research you’re doing. I’m interested in chemistry and here’s what I’ve done so far. I’d really love to be part of your department and learn more.”

And so that department chair does not get that email from other students. So, what ends up happening is that department chair ends up walking down the admissions office and saying, this is who we want. So, it’s just a totally different approach. It almost gives them, I always say, an unfair advantage.

Michael Schaus: Well, and it’s talking about the experience too. It’s that experience-based learning, which is so powerful in getting you to move forward. You know, I think a lot of the times I think about my experience and where I am in my life and having started my business and done marketing and everything else, I never sat in a classroom and had somebody explain to me how to do any of this.

You know, I had to learn all of it myself. And occasionally I run across people who did sit in a classroom to learn all of it. And they all say the same thing, which is it really didn’t teach me anything. It gave me a piece of paper, which sure helped me get a job the first time or something, right?

But it’s that experience. So, if you’re coming out of high school and you’ve already got the experience of starting a business or something that gives you a huge leg up on a bunch of kids who went to speech and debate class.

Why did you start with just the lower grades at this point? Is that just kind of the starting point where you had folks interested or is there a specific reason that you started there?

James Lomax: Yeah, it’s very specific. So, our model kind of has three parts. We want them to one first learn how to learn, then learn how to be so that’s like their own morality and values, and then learn how to do.

Each of those things kind of happens at different levels and they build on each other. So that K through fifth is really learning how to learn. So, we don’t actually teach them anything. We use a Socratic method, which, if you’re not familiar, is a method of teaching by asking questions.

So, we’re asking them questions to further stimulate their own thought. And then we’re putting them in experiences where they kind of figure out things for themselves. So, we spend, you know, that elementary ages really teaching them how to learn so that, you know, we don’t know what the future’s going to look like and we can’t teach them.

We can’t prepare them for a future that we don’t know what’s coming. So, all we can do is teach them how to learn. So, when they have to learn something, they know exactly how to do it. So, we need that base first.

And then once we get into the middle school, that’s when we’re really focused more on the morality and values element. So, who are you? What is it that you value? And we’re not telling them, we’re not indoctrinating them to our values. We’re helping them figure out what is it that they value and who they are and what is it they want to stand up for. And that’s really the middle school.

And then, high school was really like, okay, what’s the next? What’s your next step? What’s your next great adventure? What are your passions and how do you go out and find that passion and make it happen? So, understanding how to actually do things to get moving forward. So that’s why it kind of goes into steps.

Michael Schaus: It’s really exciting. I love what you guys are doing. One of the reasons, you know, we touched on it, when you look, especially at public education, we focus so much on okay, what are the grades, what’s the curriculum? What is the specific way that we’re going to teach this issue or something?

And I really think part of what we’re seeing in this kind of revolution of education with school choice popping up everywhere and all these new micro schools and everything, it’s a refocusing of education on what are the various ways that we can help kids learn?

I love the experimentation that we’re seeing right now, and I’m glad that you guys are a part of it. If people want to find out a little bit more about Life Skills Academy and what you guys do, where is somewhere that they can go?

James Lomax: Sure. The easiest is our website, which just lifeskillsacademynv.com. And then on social media, pretty much any social media of choice: YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, just Life Skills Academy NV, and you’ll find us all over there and all the cool stuff we’re doing.

Michael Schaus: Excellent. Well, thank you so much, James. We really appreciate it.

James Lomax: Thank you so much for having me. It was a good talk.

Michael Schaus: This is legitimately the part of the education revolution that I’m really enjoying.

I mean, I understand that we’re all fighting for educational options and educational choice, and that could be the opportunity scholarships, that could be universal ESAs, fill in the blank. But the reason why those things are important though, the reason why getting an ESA or getting more opportunity scholarships, the reason that’s important is so that way more people can access the choices that are already cropping up.

And this is what so many people in the public school establishment just don’t understand. Look, education is changing. People are going out there and they are creating new schools. They’re creating new models of learning.

They’re creating new approaches to enlightening an entire other generation. This is not something that the public school establishment or really any established educational system is going to be able to do. The public school system is so established it’s not going to be able to, and it doesn’t have the freedom to create new models of learning.

If a private school starts up tomorrow and they say, “Hey, look, we have this new revolutionary way of thinking about education and we’re going to try to teach the kids in this new crazy way,” if it fails, that’s fine. It fails, it goes away. Those kids go to a different school that’s ostensibly working for them.

If a public school system fails, it’s gone, and nobody has any options. So, the public school establishment does not have the freedom to experiment. It does not have the freedom to innovate the private sector. Do homeschoolers have that freedom? Private schools have that freedom. Even charter schools have that freedom.

And the reason why educational choice options like opportunity scholarships or ESAs are so important is that it allows more people access to those innovations. If you don’t have the money, you’re going to be really hard pressed to send your child to a private school that’s innovating. If you don’t have the money, you’re going to be really hard pressed to homeschool your child in a new creative way.

So, what we’re seeing in education is this kind of explosion of creativity when it comes to approaching education. And that is no matter how you cut it, it is going to be a really, really big deal. And it’s going to be the driving force behind actual educational option reforms such as opportunity scholarships or ESAs and what we’re seeing in some states like Florida and Arizona and elsewhere.

More people are getting access to those options and it’s encouraging even more innovation. So, it’s a really exciting time. If you’re looking at education, we’ve got to continue to fight so that way more people have access to those innovations. But also, we’ve got to just fight to make sure that people keep innovating and people keep trying new things.

People keep trying to reinvent the educational model because the world is very different than was even 20 years ago, let alone 120 years ago. Clearly, we’ve got to bring some changes to that industry.

Hey, thank you so much for listening today. Be sure to go to Nevadapolicy.org/podcast.

You can sign up to receive all of these podcasts right to your inbox as soon as they come out, but you can also reach out to us. Let us know if there’s any guests or topic that you think we ought to cover on the show. Again, Nevadapolicy.org/podcast. Thank you so much for listening.

This has been Free to Offend.

Free to Offend can also be heard on Amazon and iTunes.

 Free to Offend:
A podcast that radically defends free speech by regularly practicing it.

Produced by Nevada Policy Research Institute,
featuring Nevada Policy’s Michael Schaus.