BATAVIA, Ohio — Mindy Balser’s daughter had a tough year in first grade, and going to school just kept getting tougher.
The situation was untenable by third grade. Balser and her husband knew they needed an alternative. They found Days of Wonder School in Batavia and enrolled their daughter there for fourth grade.
Balser saw a dramatic change within a couple months. Her daughter went from being quiet and withdrawn to coming out of her shell and being excited about school again.
“I had neighbors approach me and say, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but whatever you’re doing, don’t stop,’” Balser said. “Not every child fits in the box of public school, and my daughter’s not shaped like a square. She’s a star. This environment gives her a safe and nonjudgmental learning environment.”
That’s exactly what Cynthia Day set out to create when she founded Days of Wonder in her basement in August 2012. A former public school teacher who home-schooled her own children for 18 years, Day said she wanted to start a school that encompassed the teaching techniques she thought worked best.
“I wanted to create a place where all children loved learning,” Day said. “I wanted it to be a school where the kids were excited to come.”
She launched Days of Wonder with 17 students in grades three through six and quickly outgrew her basement. Now in its seventh year, the school serves 153 students from preschool through high school in two different buildings. The state of Ohio classifies Days of Wonder as a home-school option. It is not an accredited school and doesn’t meet charter school requirements.
Day said Days of Wonder couldn’t be a charter school because students only attend three days a week and learn from home with the help of their parents the other two days. It isn’t accredited because she doesn’t require teachers there to be certified, she said.
“I don’t believe that you need a teaching certificate to be the best teacher that you can be,” Day said. “People that I get who are certified teachers, they have a harder time learning our methods than someone who comes forward with no degree and just loves kids.”
‘They’ll explain it until you get it’
Cayenne Hardy and Olivia Liming have been going to Days of Wonder since kindergarten. Both girls are fifth-graders and couldn’t say enough good things about the place.
“It’s just a wonderful experience to watch how the teachers care for the students, believe in them and understand them,” said Cayenne, who is 10 and lives in Batavia. “This is the way I like it.”
Olivia, who is 11 and lives in Felicity, said she can’t wait to get to school on the days it’s in session.
“They always just have fun ways of teaching things,” she said. “If you don’t understand something, they’ll explain it until you get it.”
Plus, Olivia said she appreciates the way her teachers let her go at her own pace.
“It’s not like: ‘You have to do this, you have to do that,’” she said. “It’s like: ‘Can you do this? Can you do that? If not, I can help you.’”
Day said the school is structured that way on purpose.
Students in preschool through eighth grade spend their school days with the same teacher all day, which Day said gives teachers more flexibility to stick with lessons and build upon themes.
There is some separation at the high school level for different science and math classes, Day said. Every teacher has at least one aide, and many of the classrooms also have several grades mixed together.
Day, for example, teaches grades four, five and six and has the same students for several years in a row.
“I already have a relationship with the child and the family before we start the second year,” she said.
Teachers make sure students sit next to different classmates every day, and students who remain at Days of Wonder for multiple years also have the opportunity to be the “oldest” or the “youngest” in their classes.
Day also works to keep the cost of tuition low, she said, to make Days of Wonder a viable option for families that can’t afford private schools.
Families pay $270 per month for preschool and $250 per month for kindergarten through eighth grade. High school tuition varies based on the number of classes students take, Day said, but ranges from $280 to $345 per month.
Every family with children at Days of Wonder must put in 40 hours of volunteer time per school year, she said. It’s broken up into four hours over the summer and four hours each month from August through May. Some grade papers while others clean classrooms.
Parents also must raise an additional $300 per school year in any combination of their own fundraisers.
“At a good school, you have to have teachers and parents and students all working together,” she said. “I really feel like we’re a team working together.”
‘They really love them’
There’s no doubt Day is the captain of that team.
“Cynthia looks for ways to test the children and to teach the children without making it scary,” Balser said.
Balser’s favorite example, she said, is that Day has her students do “book commercials” where they read a book and then stand up to talk about it in front of the class. The kids all think they’re doing commercials for their books, she said, but they’re actually doing oral book reports.
“The staff genuinely cares for the students. I volunteer here a lot now. I see it. It’s not just a show for when the parents drop off and pick up,” Balser said. “They love them. They really love them.”
Balser credits Day and Days of Wonder for saving her daughter. Day said the saving goes both ways.
Day was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer in February 2017. She fought it and was cancer-free, but it came back a year later.
“These kids, they keep me going,” she said. “They give me life. The doctors are constantly saying, 'I can’t believe you’re still working,' but do what you need to do.”
Day turned over administrative responsibilities for the school to others when she got sick. She still teaches full-time, often with her dog, Arrow, curled up in the corner of her classroom. She has only missed a few days since her diagnosis.
“The hardest part is getting here,” she said. “And my teachers start showing up. My students start showing up. It’s the adrenaline that keeps me going.”
That adrenaline was on full display during a recent afternoon. Students in one room were learning about volume with expanding beads in sealed bags of water.
In another room, kids were painting pictures of geodes and covering them with glitter.
Day’s own students were broken up into teams, playing a game to test their knowledge after a lesson on Antarctica.
“Antarctica has no plants. Fact or fib?” a grinning girl asked the boy across from her.
Day talked the boy through things to consider. Would that mean only trees? Could there be bushes or shrubs or some other kind of vegetation?
The boy incorrectly guessed “fact,” scoring a point for the girl’s team. Day smiled and told him she understood that was an easy mistake to make.
The group read about the mosses of Antarctica then moved on to the next question.
More information about Days of Wonder School is available online. The school will host a Down Home Dinner to raise money for its operations on Feb. 22 at the American Legion in Mt. Carmel. Tickets are $25 each and can be purchased by calling (513) 732-2111. For more information about the fundraiser, email Amy Harrell at email@example.com.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.