When Robert Calvert was a teenager, school felt like a prison to him. “That’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s my most honest answer,” he says. “I was bored out of my mind.” Then, during his junior year of high school, he had an epiphany. “I was in a philosophy class with a teacher who was amazing,” recalls Calvert. “I came to believe that school doesn’t have to be a waste of someone’s time.”
Calvert decided then and there that he would become a teacher. “I had many options, but I picked education because I think it’s broken,” says Calvert. “I think we’re stealing a lot of time from kids.” In 2007, he founded Sacramento Makers Academy, a private alternative junior high and high school for kids whose needs are not being met in traditional academic settings.
Instead of following a typical curriculum, the school’s 15 students focus on highly prized vocational skills like welding, CAD, coding, and 3-D modeling and printing inside a workshop that’s part of Hacker Lab in midtown. Students receive hands-on instruction from Calvert and fellow teacher Brannon Harris on everything from how to operate the workshop’s laser cutter and shop bot to how to write a business plan.
Student Colin Tarr
There are no grades at Sacramento Makers Academy, and the school is not accredited. (It operates under a private school affidavit.) “We are not and do not want to be accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges because if we did, we would have to look like a normal school,” says Calvert. The setup affords him the flexibility to meet students where they’re at. “I try to base everything around what the student values and the direction they are going. What are you good at? What are you interested in?”
For some kids, the academy is the first school setting where they’ve experienced success. “Everybody is here because public school didn’t work for them,” says Calvert, whose approach is to build on a student’s natural inclinations and interests and help them take charge of their own learning. “I really care about kids’ choices. I care about them investing in their education. That’s when they’re going to learn: when it matters to them.”
At the heart of Calvert’s teaching philosophy is the value he places on self-determination. “I value freedom very, very highly,” explains Calvert. “One of the words that all my kids know is sovereignty. I talk to them about it a lot—to be your own sovereign, to be the person who rules your life. I think the vehicle to that is education. That’s why I’m here, to get more people to realize that they steer their own ship.”
Some students have already founded businesses selling products that they designed and manufactured at school, including Daniel Molokie, who makes an item called GoShield, a lens protector for GoPro cameras. Fourteen-year-old Colin Tarr, who travels from Yuba City each day to attend the academy, says it has been a great fit for him. “I think it’s 10 times better than an average school,” says Tarr. “A normal public school just teaches you the tip of the iceberg, but Calvert and Harris teach us things that we really need.”