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Our Mission is to inspire each person who enters our doors to find a calling that will change the world.

At River Oak Academy, we help our learners create their own path to success by developing the real world skills and character traits that matter most.

Individual Paced

Learning

Growth Mindset

Creativity

A day in the life at ROA...
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JOIN THE REVOLUTION.

Turn Learning Upside Down.

"Once you discover how much children can do in an environment that dignifies, magnifies, and inspires their minds to learn, there's no going back to traditional classrooms again." 

-Courage to Grow by

Laura Sandefer

Spark

Our Spark Studio offers a safe, caring, and warm environment where young children thrive.

The studio consists of an ideal balance of indoor and outdoor opportunities for enriched learning through play and hands-on exploration, where they build skills and knowledge at their own pace.

 

We draw our inspiration from the schools in the highly successful municipal schools of Reggio-Emilia, Italy, and Maria Montessori's educational philosophy but we are not a Montessori school.

 

Our approach is specifically designed to foster a culture of respect, develop individual character,  and promote student achievement.

Kindness and developing good character is a cornerstone in all we do. The social, emotional, as well as the academic life of each child, is valued and honored.

Explorer

Our Explorer Studio consists of bright, open, and flexible spaces for work, learning, and play.  

It is a place where learners come together to learn core skills, develop character, and life skills while having ample opportunities for collaboration, exploration, and free play in our outdoor classroom and maker's space.

 

Learners use hands-on materials as well as adaptive technology to build a strong foundation of core skills.

 

Each Studio is a tight-knit community where they learn how to set goals, work collaboratively, hold one another accountable, and love learning.

This environment fosters a culture of respect and character development.

Marvel

The Marvel Studio learners  are able to work independently, but have many opportunities to collaborate.  

 

They work on difficult, real-world problems and learn to write and think more deeply. 

 

Learners continue collaborating, building their character, and building friendships with their studio-mates who will challenge and support them through peer review of their work. 

 

This Studio ultimately brings learners to a deeper understanding of their character, while they explore their natural talents, their calling through apprenticeships, and realize their gifts; helping them discover who they are, what they are good at, and what they are meant to do. To find a calling to change the world.

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ACTON LANGUAGE

We have turned learning
upside down!

HERO'S JOURNEY

We believe each of our learners will find a passion – something they love and have a gift to do – finding and pursuing this gift we call the Hero’s Journey. All our learners are Heroes.

 

LEARNER-Led

River Oak Academy is Learner-Led, which means that our learners are involved in every step of decision making processes from studio rules, scheduling, school systems, and even disciplinary actions. Age- appropriate freedoms, within reason, are given to learners at the greatest extent. They are responsible to set their own goals, track their progress, navigate relationships, and reflect on their experiences.

 

GUIDE

River Oak has Guides, rather than teachers. A Guide’s role is not to be an expert but to inspire, equip, and connect the learner to their own conclusions. Guides provide challenges with the goal for learners to eventually become intrinsically motivated and independent.

 

STUDIO

We refer to our classrooms as studios to encourage the idea of an environment of creation and personal expression.

 

QUEST

All learners engage in experiential learning expeditions we call Quests. Participating in a Quest allows a learner to explore a topic in-depth using a variety of hands-on experiences

Our Story

My name is Mary Shaeffer, and I am a mom of

two children and founder of River Oak Academy.

I’m wondering if we might have a few things in common.

If you’re like me, you:

  • Tried traditional schools or homeschooling, but still felt like there was more to learning.  

  • Believe your children deserve a relevant education free of the outdated confines of a traditional school, including hours of homework and dozens of fill-in-the-blank tests.

  • Hope your child can learn real-world skills through hands-on projects.

  • Would love for your children to be in a small school where they are known by name and given individualized encouragement.

  • Desire your children to be in a school where being kind, developing meaningful friendships and learning to be a person of integrity is deeply valued. 

  • Want your children to find their life’s calling and be inspired to be world changers. 

 

Even though I never expected to launch a school, it has been one of the most challenging and best journeys I’ve ever been on. I am very grateful that in 2015

I googled, “how to start your own school” which led me to Acton Academy, our affiliate school.

 

If you are ready to reinvent education for your family, I encourage you to read our blog through our admissions process, read Courage to Grow, and schedule a school tour. We look forward to meeting your family.

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Our Learners Build Small Businesses
From concept to reality.

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Businesses created and launched by our learners. 

One-day fairs where learners and children in our community showcase their businesses and explore entrepreneurial skills.

An Experience Children Never Forget

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Young entrepreneurs first make an important decision: they hire themselves! They’ll apply through the business fair website and begin to launch their product or service. The children plan their business at every level: product, service, marketing, accounting, cost of goods, pricing, profit, etc. Through this process, children learn a sense of wonder, the importance of hard work, taking responsibility, and gaining confidence in the next challenge.

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MEET OUR TEAM

Who We Are

We would like to think of ourselves as facilitators, motivators, or guides. 

Learners are encouraged to take more control of their learning process. 

Our role is to embrace each child's unique qualities, equip and support them

with resources to be problem solvers and creative thinkers even through failures, 

empowering and motivating them to find what they want to accomplish in the world.

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Kathy Aguilar

Guide

Kathy grew up in Miami. She is a military child of Japanese and Costa Rican descent. She moved to Jacksonville in 2017 to be closer to family. She's a proud mother of an 11 year old son whom she had raised as a Montessori child. She first learned about the Montessori method in her twenties while working part time at an AMI Montessori School, where she became mesmerized with how much a child can learn given the right tools. Witnessing them develop independence with the freedom of choice.

Kathy holds a Bachelor's Degree in Law and Forensic Science from Florida International University. Her intention was to enter the police academy but longed for something that nurtured her tender heart and spirit. She decided to change the course of her life and instead pursued training in a Montessori program at Loyola University.  She has taught in a Toddler classroom for 7 years, a Primary classroom for 7 years, and in Lower Elementary for 9 years.

She is looking forward to her new adventure as a guide at River Oak Academy where she can instill her love of the Montessori philosophy with our families.

During her spare time, she likes to attend Crossfit classes, bake, go on family mini vacations visiting historical places, and living a healthy lifestyle.

 

“When a child is given a little leeway, he will at once shout, ‘I want to do it!’ But in our schools, which have an environment adapted to children’s needs, they say, ‘Help me to do it alone.’”

-The Secret of Childhood

Sherryl Morgan

Guide

Sherryl was born in the Philippines, raised in South Florida in a multicultural home, her dad from Trinidad and her mom from the Philippines.  Her mixed culture was vital to her love of art, completing various portfolio classes through high school and college, her advanced drawing and painting skills spilled into the digital world. Sherryl was fortunate to attend and graduate from the Digital Animation and Visual Effects School in Orlando and CG Masters Academy in BC, Canada. Was able to do all this with the support of her husband Sean, and her 4 children. Her son had travelled with her during this time which lead them to the world of homeschooling. This opened up Sherryl's eyes to what a child is capable of when given agency over their learning. 

After a decade of large scale projects throughout, she was fortunate to have traveled around the country and world, absorbing different landscapes, her career took a turn into the digital world of Film and Gaming. Sherryl had also founded, and ran for eight year, Hands On STEAM Studio & Gallery; a unique space that offered STEAM (Science Technology Engineering ART Math) activities for all ages, from preschool-adult. She found that the classes engaged diverse and independent creatives to be successful. Throughout the years, it developed experience-driven communities, bringing teams together, encouraging young makers to explore limitless possibilities- empowering minds, launching businesses, transforming neighborhood into a better place to be.

Her wish, as she takes on the position as guide, is to bring about inspiration, new vibrancy and increasing engagement using arts across disciplines into our studios-ultimately a love of learning.

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Dinah Frilling

Guide

Gina Rich

Guide

Businesses created and launched by our learners. 

One-day fairs where learners and children in our community showcase their businesses and explore entrepreneurial skills.

Dinah is co-founder of Connecting Thru Music and Music Teacher for Connecting Thru Music (CTM). She graduated from Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in 99’ and studied Vocal Performance at Jacksonville University. She is a private voice, piano, and guitar instructor at Orange Park School of Music and a Licensed Kindermusik Educator. Her band, Cain’t Never Could, is partnered with CTM and provides live music and support for their fundraising initiatives. She is the lead song writer for CTM. 

As a music teacher and working musician, her goal is to connect to others through the powerful medium of music. She believes that music is the universal language, the common bond that connects us and soothes our souls. Having seen first hand the success that comes from using music as a tool for learning, she strongly believes in the benefits of music enrichment for children. She welcomes opportunities that allow her to share her love and appreciation for music with others! 

Gina Rich is a graduate of The Art Institute Of Atlanta and is working towards obtaining a Master’s degree in mixed media and education. She has spent the last twenty years as a graphic designer for companies such as Whole Foods Market, The Home Depot and Georgia Power. Now that her children are older, Gina has relocated away from the Atlanta traffic to sunny Florida where she enjoys traveling in her Airstream trailer on her breaks. She remains focused on guiding those who may not otherwise get the support and opportunity to nurture their creative talents. She looks forward to helping River Oak Academy be a place where everyone feels welcome, accepted and free to be their creative best.

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Mary Shaeffer, DMD, CAGS

Founder/Head of School

Laura Sandefer, M.Ed

Co-Founder Acton Austin/ Advisor

Mary was born and raised in the Philippines, of Filipino and Spanish ancestry. Coming from a family with a passion for art, science, and a heart for service, with both sisters going into healthcare; she was naturally lead into pursuing healthcare as a career and completed her Post Doctoral Studies in Boston University. She loved serving her patients and developing a connection with their families but eventually felt that the transactional component in healthcare did not align with her beliefs nor feed her soul.

 

After having 2 children of her own, she made the momentous decision to retire and focus on her family. This allowed her to witness her children's experiences in school which lead her to the greatest crossroads of her life. Seeking what she didn't know existed, yet knowing that being content with the status quo and not taking action was something she was not willing to do; a great believer in creating the change you wish to see in the world, she felt a deep calling to create a school which lead her to Acton Academy.

 

She pursued further training at Lesley University on a Reggio approach to education and at the Southwest Institute of Montessori Studies on AMI Montessori Administration. This transition into more progressive ideas in education had helped her let go of the achievement-based, perfectionistic mindset nurtured by her past experience, with a dream of creating a learning community where the joy of learning is palpable. With many years of trial and error, soul-searching, and great love- River Oak Academy was born. She is inspired each day by all the children at ROA. She remains a lifelong learner, most often learning more from the children than from anyone else. Mary's vision is to see River Oak Academy as a place where children are seen as the best versions of themselves. A place where they feel safe, heard, and loved. 

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Laura lived on both US coasts and in between as a child, then settled into Vanderbilt University for her undergraduate studies in the College of Arts and Science. After being awarded the highly competitive Walter Wattles Fellowship at Lloyd’s of London, Laura worked in the aviation insurance industry in New York City. Deciding to follow her calling into the world of education, Laura returned to Nashville and earned her Master of Education at Peabody College. This led her to her work at the Oklahoma Arts Institute, creating fine arts education programs for teachers and talented high school students.

 

Laura married Jeff Sandefer and is the happy mother of Sam and Charlie and step-mother to Taite. It is the inspiration of these children that led Laura and Jeff to co-found Acton Academy. Her greatest hero is her mother who was a Master Teacher. Her wisest mentor is her father who sent her off to college with two words of advice: "Be curious."

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Jeff Sandefer, MBA

Co-Founder Acton Austin/ Advisor

Jeff Sandefer lives a dual life as an entrepreneur and a Socratic Guide. As an entrepreneur, he founded his first company at age 16 and went on to found or co-found seven successful businesses. As a Socratic teacher at the University of Texas, Jeff’s students five times voted him the school’s Outstanding Teacher and Businessweek named him one of the top Entrepreneurship professors in America. Jeff went on to co-found the Acton School of Business, an MBA program perennially ranked by the Princeton Review among the best in the nation.

In 2012 The Economist honored him as one of the top fifteen Business School professors in the world. Jeff is a graduate of the Harvard Business School, where he served for over twenty years on the school’s governing committees. He was a longtime director of the Philanthropy Roundtable and National Review magazine and one of the youngest members ever elected to the Texas Business Hall of Fame.

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“Acton Academy is grounded in trusting children and believing they can handle big responsibilities.”

Laura Sandefer, Acton Academy cofounder; author of Courage to Grow

Our studios have guides, not traditional teachers. Guides use the Socratic method—asking questions instead of providing all the answers—to help learners take ownership of their education. We encourage our learners to try, fail, and try again, going at their own pace without fear or shame, knowing that this process will form character and build perseverance, knowledge, and mastery.

The River Oak Academy curriculum focuses on:

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Learning to Learn

Our Learners work at their own pace to achieve mastery in the core skills of reading, grammar, and math rather than to earn grades or pass tests. In mastery learning, learners take the time they need to master a topic before moving on to the next, more advanced level. This allows learners to work in their challenge zone, to breeze ahead in topics that come quickly to them and to go slower in areas where they need more time.

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Learning to Do

River Oak Academy (ROA) takes an innovative and creative approach, engaging learners in real-world projects, or quests. Quests challenge them to learn in a hands-on environment.

We don't want to just read about the cool things about engineering, architecture, gardening, experiments and running a business.  We want our learners to experience the value of teamwork, problem-solving, hard work, and perseverance, all while having fun! Quests challenge our Learners to learn by doing in fields as diverse as biology, programming, poetry, history, and more. And rather than simply taking tests, ROA learners prove their learning through end of session exhibitions.

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Learning to Be

Learners learn to be by engaging in Socratic discussions that encourage deep thinking and reflection about themselves and the world; take ownership of their learning by setting their own learning goals and participating in the governance of their class; and practice and celebrate key character traits—such as hard work, integrity, courage, persistence, and grit, as well as kindness, grace, and courtesy. These traits are critical ingredients for a fulfilling life.

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River Oak Academy is here to guide your learners to discover their own path.

At River Oak Academy we believe that school should be a place for critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, and character building.

Our learners push themselves forward through self-paced, significant project-based instruction tailored towards their strengths and interests. Education shouldn't be one-size-fits-all. 

Learners are given the creative opportunities and spaces to master critical thinking, problem solving skills, and a spirit of adventure about their own purpose and educational development.

River Oak Academy sees children as competent individuals capable of guiding their own learning. To that end, we combine several educational approaches to encourage deep and lasting learning and academic growth.

Our project-focused approach to education is hands-on and collaborative, and allows children to learn through their innate curiosity, not just by reading from a textbook.

In our mixed age environment across studios, learners discover how to engage and form meaningful relationships with their fellow travelers and their guides. By providing learners with a mix o of outdoor studio time, we are able to increase and maximize their levels of engagement, feed their curiosities and learning throughout the day. 

Across these kinds of rich experiences, students create real-world deliverables  that enable cutting edge design thinking and cross discipline innovation.

RIVER OAK ACADEMY
MAKERSPACE

River Oak Academy has a Makerspace that is reserved for creative exploration, engineering, building, tinkering, inventing and all sorts of making.  Makerspaces incorporate engineering materials, crafting materials, technology, robotics, and more.

The makerspace area can be used during whole class STEAM (Science Technology Art Math) challenges, incorporated as a center or small group rotation, or accessed during unstructured creative time with STEAM Bins or Maker Mats. 

Having the makerspace encourages collaboration,  give learners access to technology that is hard to come by at home,  and provides many opportunities to innovate. 

The learners are and have been a apart of all aspects of designing their makerspace and what items are needed for all of their projects.  It is a space of hands-on, out of the box learning that have practical lessons of problem solving, recovering from failure, redesigning, and good communication, with an equal amount of wonder and enjoyment. Their makerspace is a space to make, create and find inspiration.

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