When you meet Jeff and Laura Sandefer, you first notice how warm both of their smiles are. Laura in particular is someone you just want to sit beside but you’re not entirely sure why. Maybe it’s the hint of a southern lilt in her voice or that she looks at you so intently you feel completely heard.

This caring mom and dad made a big decision ten years ago that is profoundly affecting their children’s lives, the lives of kids around the world – and even our family’s lives, too.

Their story starts out in a manner familiar to most families who dare to try something new and different because they feel that the existing options are not suitable for their own children. An exchange between Jeff and his child’s math teacher moved them deeply. In Courage to Grow: How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down, Laura recounts what happened: her husband came home and said quietly, “We’re not doing this school thing anymore.”

She explains how her husband was propelled to act by what the math teacher told him. The teacher said that once a child has experienced school in a early learning Montessori environment, as Jeff and Laura’s children had, that it was best to enroll them in traditional schooling “as soon as possible” because, “once they’ve had that much freedom, they’ll hate being chained to a desk and being talked to all day.”

Jeff responded with, “I wouldn’t blame them!” to which the teacher replied, “I wouldn’t either.” These statements brought tears to the teacher’s eyes and ignited a spark in Jeff’s that moved the Sandefers to take action. That very day, the seeds for what is now called Acton Academy were sown.

I know what that spark feels like. A similar experience drove me to take my children out of public school and start looking for schooling different than what I experienced as a child. The world today is so unlike the world we grew up in: our kids need an education that reflects these massive changes.

If Jeff and Laura’s turning point was that conversation with the math teacher, mine came as a result of seeing what changes could be possible within the system we were in.

As part of the research I had been doing as a psychotherapist and parenting educator I had been spending more time learning about learning. Seeing some opportunities for change in my boys’ school, I attended a parent council meeting to get a sense for how likely it was to suggest those changes.

It became clear to me that although each of the people in that meeting were lovely, caring people, the focus was on fundraising, test scores, and school boundary issues. I could see that those were certainly important concerns for the school, which needed to be addressed, and also that engaging in an education reform process large enough to reflect our 21st century world would be a massive undertaking.

I was very discouraged that night; it seemed apparent that any big changes just could not happen in time to positively affect my children. When I got home that night, I said to my husband, “That’s it. Let’s find something different.”

Thankfully, after taking time to look through many education systems already out there, my husband stumbled across Acton Academy on a Google search. I opened the website and was immediately excited by what I encountered: I spent hours reading and knew we had found what we were looking for. Seven months later, our version of Acton, called Infinity School, had it’s first day of school.

One of the key concepts that drew us into this model was the learner-driven aspect of it. As Laura explains in her book, the Sandefers realized that an often overlooked, yet crucially important education step is to involve the children in the learning decision-making process. Acton was founded upon this principle. She states that children can be trusted to be creative and direct, their participation inspires a feeling of ownership and pride, and they have amazing ideas.

Laura explains that by trusting children to become a central part of their educational process, they are not endorsing an “anything goes” type of learning environment. Rather, that children develop discipline internally and Acton is designed to encourage this discipline by relying upon a framework of guardrails, mentors, and also legitimate authorities.

A central belief at Acton is that when this approach is followed, children can be trusted with far more responsibility than most school administrators can imagine.

With that foundation in place, the second Acton Academy core value is to, let them struggle. What many educational researchers know, including Jessica Lahey in her highly successful book The Gift of Failure, is that struggle is valuable for real learning and growth.

An appreciation for struggle also leads to a refined understanding of adventure, so the third core value is to seize the adventure. Right away, Jeff and Laura realized how their school was like a quest to “discover one’s greatest gifts and the grand wonders of the world” more that it was a “school.” This understanding led them to chose the Hero’s Journey metaphor as a critical piece of their puzzle.

My journey of opening a school has certainly included moments where I have felt like I am in the arena with dirt and sweat on me, a metaphor Brené Brown has made famous through her works. There have certainly been some days ending in tears.

I’m so grateful Laura talks about how she created a whole new school and also shares her own “arena” experiences in the book. These moments of vulnerability on her part further increase my resolve that we are doing the right thing for our children and other kids in our own Acton school community.

Please be forewarned, though, as great of a book as Courage to Grow is, if you read it, you might find yourself entering the arena with Laura, Jeff, myself, and all the other Acton Academy owners and families, too.