Photography by Dan Austin
Through individualized learning and parent partnerships, learn how this licensed private academy is building up and resourcing local families and children through their schoolhouse style of education.
From their charismatic imaginations to their intrinsic personalities, our children uniquely have a way of shaping our perspective with their desire for adventure. Their unmatched curiosity has oftentimes existed as a reminder to us … to remember to appreciate life’s simplicity and to never lose our own sense of wonder.
More than ever, children are living in a high performance-driven culture, which has piqued disorders such as anxiety and depression in children at ages as young as three years old — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). With an overemphasis on standardized testing and a one-size-fits-all learning style, some children are finding school to be more negatively challenging than enriching.
Local moms and entrepreneurs Tiffany Thenor and Jessica Zivkovich found themselves questioning this method of teaching for several years before establishing WonderHere. This year, they are celebrating three years of serving more than 100 families through their personalized school curriculum and wholesome teaching methods.
“We’d been friends for a while and together shared a common lack of joy for teaching in the public school setting,” says Thenor as she recalls where it all began for them. “Jessica and I shared common concerns in that we didn’t want to be part of the constant complaining and negativity of the public school. Our concerns led us to problem solve and dream together on my couch in the living room.”
Dreaming out loud for Thenor and Zivkovich grew into a powerful vision — one that would explode into an opportunity for both moms to create a completely different learning experience for children and local families in Lakeland. With a focus on building a fun, healthy teaching space, both Thenor and Zivkovich created WonderHere, a licensed private schoolhouse-style academy, with the idea of fostering a significant and wholesome childhood through positive teaching methods and unique development strategies for their students.
Discovering the Vison and the Why
Some of the challenges within the public school system are what sparked the desire for an innovative, educational alternative for Thenor and Zivkovich.
“When it comes to the public school system, oftentimes there is an overemphasis on high-state testing, which can create a culture of stress and anxiety for children at a young age,” says Zivkovich. “As well, we found there was a lack in individuality amongst students — a one-size-fits-all perception.” Both Thenor and Zivkovich believe setting the same benchmarks at the same time for all students is an unrealistic move educationally, which is why one of the biggest focuses at WonderHere is teaching students according to their individuality — their personal strengths and their personal weaknesses.
While one student may be able to excel at a certain level, there are several students who may struggle or need extra assistance in learning the subject at their own pace. Children are a beautiful part of the bigger picture, and as they grow and learn, they have the opportunity to explore, play, learn, and nurture their wonder through Thenor’s and Zivkovich’s teaching methods.
“When we were building and dreaming up WonderHere, we found so much educational inspiration from other advancing places around the world — like Reggio Emilia, Italy, and the country of Finland,” says co-founder, Thenor. At an advanced level, these countries are leading in the educational field and tend to honor childhood by believing in the power of play and creativity at work. By creating a well-balanced schedule with intentionally crafted curriculum, Thenor and Zivkovich have paved the way for children at WonderHere to lead certain educational activities, design with their hands and imaginations, and socially interact with other students from all diverse backgrounds.
While class sizes tend to be larger — oftentimes pushing more than 20 to 30 children per classroom — WonderHere caps their student count at around 12 so teachers can individualize each student’s learning within the classroom setting. As well, students are placed in grades according to their comprehensive level, not their age. Both younger and older children are mixed together within the same-level classes to ensure diversity and to create learning environments that cater to the individual student.
In their curriculum, they nurture seven key elements in the children’s learning experience: art, play, music, phenomena, nature, community service, and literature. From artistic activities to giving back to the community, the WonderHere team enriches their students’ learning with meaningful and practical lessons daily. While the public school system may focus on a more rigorous working schedule, children at WonderHere have the opportunity to slow down to enjoy their lives and learn through the perspective of a healthy, stress-free environment.
“Our goal is to be able to serve the community by allowing the possibility for children to be scholarshipped to attend WonderHere Academy.”
“Our [students’] parents have inspired us so much,” says Thenor. In fact, one of the qualities that has made WonderHere so collaborative and unique is the pertinence of parent-involvement within their students’ learning. “Quarterly, we host focus groups with parents to hear what students are communicating about their classes — what’s been the most helpful in their students’ success and what could we work on together to improve. Feedback is powerful and helps shape the next quarter for the students so much,” Thenor says.
Parents are required and encouraged to volunteer a minimum of two hours per month in partnership with the WonderHere team. “Parents do life with us! Each month we have a parent lead a club activity for students, such as beads and bracelets, kids’ yoga, any non-academic hobby, etc.,” Zivkovich says. The children also have the opportunity to adventure and explore during monthly field trips, such as going to Legoland, the Lakeland Community Theatre, and the local movies.
Though this passionate business duo didn’t grow up in Lakeland, they instantly fell in love with the warm, welcoming culture of our swan city. “After interning at a local elementary school in Lakeland for seven years, my husband and I found ourselves with a deep desire to grow roots, and we couldn’t have picked anywhere better than Lakeland. There’s nothing like it,” Thenor recalls. She and Zivkovich met at Southeastern University while both were completing their undergraduate degrees in education.
“We’re not sure if we could have ever opened WonderHere in another place. We reached out to so many local friends who championed us from the very start. With the support of Lakeland’s entrepreneurial spirit, we found home,” says Zivkovich.
The last three years have been filled with much growth and expansion for the local school, and they believe this is just the beginning. Since opening their space, located off of South Florida Avenue, they have further built out their studio space. During their first year, they started with 10 full-time students; and currently, the children’s studio is now an educational hub for over 100 children. “It’s fun, crazy and awesome all at once. With having grown in our enrollment, we’ve also grown qualitatively, as well,” shares Zivkovich. “As business-minded owners, we’ve learned through trial and error, and we strive to keep growing.” With the genuine desire to bless more families across Polk County, both Thenor and Zivkovich continue to dream big for their licensed private academy.
In 2019, WonderHere officially launched a non-profit foundation, known as the WonderHere Education Foundation. “Our goal is to be able to serve the community by allowing the possibility for children to be scholarshipped to attend WonderHere Academy,” says Thenor. “We are doing everything we can to create an educational incubator where many other parents, teachers and kids can be resourced through innovative curriculum and workshops.”
Both Thenor and Zivkovich continue to move forward as advocates for qualitative childhood and education in Central Florida through hosting several events open for the community to join. “The difference starts with us,” says Zivkovich. “Our desire is to see local families no longer underserved.” Creating a safe, stress-free space where children can learn and grow freely allows them to develop their creativity, their ability to lead, and their ability to problem solve at a young age.