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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Gonzaga University alum to open tuition-free boarding school for troubled kids

July 16, 2018 Updated Mon., July 16, 2018 at 2:21 p.m.

Businessman and Gonzaga University alumnus Jabez LeBret is working to open a tuition-free boarding school in San Diego for underserved students. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Businessman and Gonzaga University alumnus Jabez LeBret is working to open a tuition-free boarding school in San Diego for underserved students. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

Jabez LeBret remembers what it was like to be homeless at 16 years old.

LeBret, who grew up in Spokane and went to Shadle Park High School, said he found himself unable to get back on track when his mother became unable to care for him because of illness.

LeBret would frequently couch-hop from one friend’s house to another.

“I would shower in the locker room before school started,” he said. “I don’t think they even knew how bad things were.”

LeBret never graduated high school, but went to community college three years later and was eventually accepted into Gonzaga University.

Years later, after having establishing himself successfully in the world of business, LeBret has begun work to open a free boarding school in San Diego for young people experiencing the same issues he did – young people who are capable, but “disengaged and underserved” by current programs for at-risk youth.

As of the last report posted on the state of California Attorney General’s website in 2017, the school, called Sisu Academy, had not yet been registered as a public benefit organization. However, it was determined as a tax-deductible public charity by the IRS in April of this year.

The GU graduate said the support he got from friends, teachers and faculty is the reason he was able to graduate and start his own marketing company, which he sold last year.

Those individuals inspired him to create a boarding school for underprivileged youth.

The school will focus on teens who show academic promise, but haven’t been able to reach their potential because of a lack of support at school or in the home, LeBret said. Because of that, enrollment won’t be based on traditional criteria.

“Our students likely have been underperforming in school because they’ve disengaged out of their education process,” he said. “If we just test on aptitude, we’re not going to be capturing the right students.”

In traditional school settings, where students come and go, school officials often don’t find out about the problems their students face outside of the classroom, said Michael Dunn, superintendent of Educational Service District 101.

Dunn served as principal at Shadle Park High School when LeBret was a student there, and said that like many other high schoolers, LeBret was able to hide some of his struggles.

And schools are sometimes too overwhelmed to provide the best support possible for students, he said.

“In the ’90s, we didn’t have mental health support, and we still don’t have enough,” he said.

The boarding school will house roughly 350 students at full capacity, LeBret said, and is built on a STEAM – science, technology, engineering, arts and math – learning model.

“STEM” – a learning model based primarily on the hard sciences and math – “is super important, but design and art and music and literature are also very important,” he said. “It’s not that core education isn’t important, it’s how do we blend in more effectively activities that can help students learn creativity, learn problem-solving, learn critical thinking skills.”

Initial costs for the first eight years will be funded by grants, individual donors, foundations and organizations, LeBret said. The school also plans for some in-kind donations from companies like Varidesk, which have pledged to supply the school with items like desks, chairs and tables.

Eventually, LeBret said he plans for the school to become self-sufficient through so-called “on-campus accelerators.” Those “accelerators” are built-in businesses that are run by the school. They will, if all goes according to plan, generate revenue and allow students to learn about business.

The school will also house a vertical garden, which will be used to teach science and technology in addition to growing produce to sell or use for healthy meals.

Total costs over eight years are expected to be around $74 million. LeBret said he hopes to have the first businesses in the black within two to three years after startup, but expects it might be closer to six or eight.

Scott Tritt, a San Diego local who works with various nonprofits in the area, serves as an informal adviser for Sisu. Tritt became involved with the to-be school after being approached by LeBret’s partner, Tom Schenck, for help with marketing because of Tritt’s background in TV.

Tritt said he was attracted to Sisu Academy based on its unusual schooling and funding models.

“There’s a feeling that boarding school is sort of punishment,” he said. “None of that is going to be the structure of Sisu.”

The school will also only accept San Diego children, and keep parents and family involved, LeBret said. But if Sisu is successful, he would like to expand to other cities, including Spokane.

“That might be another Sisu academy,” he said, “(or) maybe it’s us giving the blueprints to someone in a community locally that wants to do something like this.”

Board members are hoping to start the first class in September 2019, which means facilities must be found to house the students until a permanent location is chosen.

A few options have been scouted, but none have been selected so far. One temporary location might be in the Scripps Ranch community near San Diego.

Finding a permanent place to house Sisu will be the biggest challenge, said board member Nancy Batterman.

“I think we’ll be able to get students pretty easily,” she said. “Build it, and they will come.”

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