Jefferson Award Winner Founded Big Minds UnschoolBy Sharon Chin

PINOLE (KPIX 5) Educators say an estimated one in ten public school students fall through the cracks because of a crisis we don’t often hear about. This week’ s Jefferson Award winner found a way for them to thrive.

Zachary Daschow is smart, but the 10-year-old, diagnosed with ADHD, had trouble sitting still and joining group activities in a traditional classroom. His mother Talia ended up homeschooling him.

“It broke my heart to watch him struggle so much in previous schools,” Talia Daschow recalled.

Then came Dr. Melanie Hayes, who founded Big Minds unschool, a nonprofit in Pinole. It’s one of the few places nationwide for “twice exceptional” or “2e” students who excel academically but also deal with disabilities ranging from anxiety disorders to autism.

Daschow says Zachary was drawn in like a magnet.

“He’s just blooming,” she reported. “He’s happy.”

A teacher and mother of twice exceptional twins herself, Hayes developed Big Minds as a research project for her doctorate in educational leadership. She opened the campus in 2015.

“There’s a place where kids can thrive and really work to their full potential because they have a lot to give to the world,” she explained. Hayes says the key is not to have the child fit the school, but fit the school to the child, and support the student’s passion.

From music to math, two dozen students pursue what they want to learn at Big Minds. The first through eighth graders also get academic coaching, and support in social and emotional skills.

Tuition is $25,000 a year. That helps fund a teacher for every three kids. But parents tell us the results are worth it: we found one student programming professional-quality video games. And Zachary is already mastering algebra.

“I wish I was at Big Minds 24 hours a day, six days a week,” he said. “Big Minds is just that good!”

“It makes me so happy, I can’t even tell you,” said Hayes with a laugh.

So for providing a school where twice exceptional students can grow, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Dr. Melanie Hayes.