At Mérida Teens Club, a Learning Studio Provides Alternative to Conventional School

Merida Teens Club. Photo: Yucatán Magazine
Online learning is a big part of the Mérida Kids Club. Photo: Abraham Bojóquez / Yucatán Magazine

At one of the fraccionamientos adjacent to La Isla shopping mall, in what appears to be an average, outside-of-Periférico, upper-middle-class home, is one of the city’s most fascinating, forward-thinking education communities.

Jenita Lawal, a Nashville native, runs the LS Learning Studio from Mondays to Thursdays. Thirteen teenagers, including her three children, are enrolled to study, interact, and form relationships with peers. 

“Call it a Learning Studio because in a studio, what do you do? You experiment, you play, right?” says Jenita. “A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Try this, try that. Collaborate. I actually don’t like calling it a school. I don’t like calling myself a teacher. I’m a facilitator; our terminology here is I’m a guide.”

But First, The Club

The Learning Studio is an offshoot of the Mérida Teens Club, which was inspired by Jenita’s own experience as a teen growing up on military bases. Teenagers would hang out and bond in clubhouses and community centers. She went on to work as an asset manager for a company that took over several privatized Army hotels, so she oversaw the development and operations teams. It was a job she enjoyed — until she didn’t. 

“I didn’t hate the US. I don’t hate Nashville. I love Nashville. We had a beautiful life. It was just time. When I was in my 20s, I applied for the Foreign Service. So, I always wanted to live abroad. I just never really created an opportunity to do it,” explains Jenita, who is also an author who has contributed stories to Yucatán Magazine.  

In 2017, the planets began to align. It all started with an online offer for a $269 round-trip flight to Mérida. Jenita was looking for a destination to celebrate her 40th birthday.

Jenita Lewal at Merida Teens Club. Photo: Yucatán Magazine
Jenita Lawal runs the Mérida Teens Club and LS Learning Studio. Photo: Abraham Bojórquez / Yucatán Magazine

“I’d never been, actually never heard of it, but I went on Google Flights, and they have an explore option, and it came up. And I’m like, what’s that about, right? So that’s honestly what led me here,” she recalls with a big smile. 

At some point during the trip, she was sitting near the Fiesta Americana, eating ice cream, when she saw a protest on Montejo.

“It was the most peaceful thing. The protesters came through with their signs, and then they were done. The police officers set up the bici-ruta, and that was that. And while I was there, I just remember having this feeling that I’m going to live here. I didn’t know when, didn’t know how. I thought it would be in 10 years.”

But 10 years became one. She returned with her three sons a year later so they could have their own experience. In April 2018, she quit her job. In August, she sold her house. In September, the family had arrived in Yucatán. 

They spent three weeks traveling across Mexico, during which she witnessed first-hand the value of real-world experiences incorporated into the education process. While they were doing school online, they did a boat tour around the Bacalar Lagoon to see the ancient stromatolites, and she had the kids give a presentation about them. In Mexico City, they touched a meteor and attended Bellas Artes concert hall. 

Merida Teens Club. Photo: Yucatán Magazine
Manifesting joy and success is one goal of the LS Learning Studio. Photo: Abraham Bojórquez / Yucatán Magazine

“I was able to create these great learning experiences outside of the classroom for them. It took some unschooling for me though, because I grew up in the ‘get straight A’s and Dean’s List’ culture and felt like I was failing them by not putting them in that system. It took a while for me to get detached from that.” 

Fast-forward a few months, the Lawals are settled in Mérida. They met a few fellow homeschooling families who lived within walking distance of their home in Caucel. The parents created a WhatsApp group, and more people joined in. The kids would meet up to play basketball, one of the dads would give them fitness classes, and they would go to the movies together. Just as they were forming these friendships, the pandemic happened. 

Post-Pandemic

Through lockdown season, the kids were still able to do online school. Some of the online classes had teachers, and they would interact with other kids on Zoom. Jenita also hired local tutors to teach them geography and Spanish, so they were tuned in to Mexico. 

“Well, at the end of the pandemic, my life is great. I’m meeting with friends and things like that. But I remember one of them saying he felt like his life was on a loop. He had nothing to look forward to. And that hurt my heart because I love it here. I’m having a great life, but they weren’t.”

The solution, she thought, was to bring back the teen hangouts but to give it more structure and organization. With the help of another mom from the group, the Mérida Teens Club was born in August 2022. A website was launched, and the WhatsApp group grew to around 90 parents. 

Then came the idea for a clubhouse. Jenita wanted to replicate her experiences in those Army community centers where teens would meet. In March of 2023, one of the moms from the group offered a property for rent. Her mom, who was visiting, went to the house to check out the space and offered to pay the rent for six months. 

“That’s how the school idea came into play. Because it was like, how do we keep the rent paid? So one of the ideas that came up was some type of co-working for homeschool kids.”

A few months later, the learning studio was a reality. 

Merida Teens Club. Photo: Yucatán Magazine
Study time at the LS Learning Studio. Photo: Abraham Bojórquez / Yucatán Magazine

A day in the life

This is how typical days go for a student at the LS Learning Studio. 

The first thing is the morning huddle; each day has a different theme. On Mondays, they will do movement, which means going outside and moving for fifteen minutes. Tuesdays are big thinking, where she’ll ask a question, and they’ll have a thoughtful conversation about it. For Wednesdays, there is a writing exercise, for which there will be a prompt set-up for them to work off. On Thursdays, they’ll review current events, read an article from a local magazine or a news website, and discuss it. 

Then, from 10 a.m. to noon, it’s core learning time, which is mostly online. They use a program called Power Homeschool, where they do math, science, and language arts. After that, it’s lunchtime. 

Finally, in the afternoon, things get flexible. Some days, they’ll have in-person group classes, such as conversational Spanish. On Tuesdays, a tutor will come in, and they can sign up for 25 minutes of solo time with the tutor. Other classes they have had are economics, philosophy, and global studies. On Monday, they can opt for independent study, during which they’ll deep dive into their interests, such as 3D modeling. On Tuesdays, they can choose between music and art. On Wednesdays, it’s between creative writing and web development. Thursdays, it’s basic carpentry or independent study. 

Jenita merged various ideas and systems to create the curriculum. One influence was the idea that kids like learning better when doing it with other kids. She also incorporated elements of Acton Academy, a micro-school model that employs self-directed and challenge-based learning, integrating the philosophy of Maria Montessori and the Socratic Method. Ideas from the unschooling movement and the book Outwitting the Devil by Napoleon Hill also went into the mix. 

“And I go based on their feedback, too. I’m always checking with them on what’s working, what’s not working, what they want more of, and what they want less of. For example, they’ll choose more independent study. So they can either go longer on their online stuff or dive into what interests them. So it still honors the homeschool philosophy, but also, it’s not completely loosey-goosey, I guess, where it’s full unschooling. I don’t follow any one philosophy. I kind of go by what feels right and what I hear from them.”

Teens partake in a Sip & Create class in Mérida. Photo Courtesy LS Learning Studio

Keeping it Cozy

The Learning Studio has 12 students, mainly from the U.S. and a few families with parents from Europe or South America. Jenita insists on keeping capacity at 15 because she likes to really know the kids and their families. It is exclusively for teens as young as eleven and as old as seventeen, and they have to spend at least six months a year in Mérida. Terms last six weeks, after which there will be at least one week off.

Through Power Homeschool, students get grades, progress scores, and credits. They also receive a transcript for this portion, which they can use in case they want to transfer to another school. For the in-person classes, there is no transcript, but they do track attendance, which is the only thing that several states in the U.S. ask for. 

To get into college, students can manually fill out a homeschooler transcript or use an umbrella school, which is like an intermediary between homeschoolers and state governments.

“Not all colleges require a high school transcript. You can test, or you can interview. They’re finding that kids who homeschool actually do better in college because they’re used to owning their education.” 

If someone wants to enter a college in Mexico, they can certify their studies through tests like the INEA. 

“So that’s up to the parents to navigate. I make sure when they come, they know what we provide. And what we don’t provide. Because I am not concerned with registering in different states or doing things like that. We’re not an official school. We’re a community of learners. And so I make sure that that’s really clear upfront.”

Walking the Halls

We tour the facilities with Jenita. The setup is minimal, perhaps to avoid distractions. Downstairs, where the living and dining rooms would be, there are a couple of desks. One student works on a laptop, the other uses pen and paper. 

As we move upstairs, we find a shared living room, two classrooms, and Jenita’s office. Inside an empty classroom are tall desks and evidence that teenagers are here: backpacks, laptops, and headphones. 

“This room here with the desks is the designated quiet study room. It’s for people who plan to work quietly to themselves. The room over there is the collaboration room. Some of them are all in biology now. So if you want to work together on something, that’s the room to go in.” 

Like most aspects of the learning experience here, spaces are flexible and interchangeable. “They can choose wherever they’d like to work, with a caveat. If they become a distraction, I may have them work in a different space. Some love the soft spaces, so they’ll lay on the couch. And you can do that, right? Because all learning doesn’t happen at a desk, you know?” 

One learner showing the other two how to meditate. Photo Courtesy LS Learning Studio

Who Should Join

The Mérida Teens Club is a social outlet funded by the LS Learning Center. It provides space for things like dances, game nights, and book clubs. Who’s eligible to join? Jenita doesn’t hesitate.

 “I would say that it’s for someone who values freedom, independent thinking, open-mindedness and challenges.”

In the club’s ever-changing spirit, Jenita and the kids will be moving out of their current house. The idea is to find a less expensive place in a neighborhood inside the Periférico, which would be more central and have better WiFi.

“This project has given me clarity about what I desire to do. I have no desire to be a conventional teacher, and I have never had. Here, I get to be a learner. I get to be a developer. I get to intellect. And so this feeds my soul. Plus, I get to be for them what someone was for me when I was their age, right? Because there are people and things along the way that helped make my life better.” 

Full of energy, Jenita walks around the halls, peeks inside the rooms, and shouts out instructions from one corner of the living to another. As she interacts with the kids, it is easy to notice the special connection that she’s developed with them. 

“I say to them, and I’ve said it a number of times, you have to find meaning in what you’re doing. So, biology, you probably won’t be a biologist. That’s okay. But how does it connect you with the world around you? How do you learn something deeper? How can you use this? So don’t look at this as just something to check off a box. Make it mean something to you.”

The Learning Center is on summer break. Enrollment begins in August.and classes resume Sept. 9.

lslearningstudio.com
www.meridateens.club

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