August 1, 2018

Trevon in Thailand

A SPECIAL GIFT — Trevon S. receives a bracelet from one of the Thailand elders during a special ceremony. During his junior year in high school, Trevon spent three months in the Southeast Asian country while a student at Thrival Academy, a, IPS study-abroad school housed on the campus of Arsenal Technical High School. Below, Trevon spends time with his host family in Thailand. He also had an opportunity to feed an elephant.

When Terry Sykes first heard of Thrival Academy, he thought it was too good to be true.

A study-abroad public high school that includes a three-month, all-expenses paid trip to Southeast Asia and integrates education with hands-on, real-world experiences? Sounded like a fantasy. But Sykes was searching for a school that would provide direction and new opportunities for his son, Trevon.

Like most parents, Sykes only wants the best for his son, but last year he was worried about where Trevon was headed as he prepared to enter his junior year of high school. “He has always been a sheltered kid, and had the best of everything,” said Sykes. “Nice shoes, video games, all of that. As he got to a certain age, he was maybe a little ungrateful in some ways.”

Sykes enrolled Trevon into Thrival and quickly learned it was as advertised.

Trevon with host family in Thailand

The one-of-a-kind school provides IPS students with an alternative education, combining personalized learning strategies and cultural immersion to create a unique learning experience capped off by a three-month trip to Thailand. And it’s totally free.

Thrival Academy — which is currently enrolling students — is an Innovation Network School under the IPS umbrella that’s housed on the campus of Arsenal Technical High School. The one-year program, now in its second year, is open to all high school juniors with at least 22 credits.

School leader India Hui calls it the only true one-year school in the state, and says it’s “everything I’ve always wished my school would be.”

At Thrival, students have a personalized curriculum, with blended courses designed to work with the second-semester immersion into another country’s culture. In the first semester, students take a combination of Ethnic Literature and Geography and History of the World, in addition to science, math, English and humanities courses.

Their coursework helps them prepare for what they’ll learn in practical application once the trip to Thailand begins. Last year, for example, students learned about migration and push-pull factors. While in Thailand, they visited a refugee camp, where they interviewed people about their experiences, how and why they ended up in Thailand, and where they planned to go after they left.

Hui said experiences like that do more than teach students about foreign countries, it also helps them learn how to more effectively recognize problems at home.

Trevon feeding an elephant in Thailand

“Our curriculum is (based on) seeing how other people are working to solve issues around the world, whether it’s health issues or what’s going on with the government, or civil rights,” said Hui. “(We look at) how other people are working to address these problems and (develop) ways to impact change.”

For many parents, the prospect of their children leaving home, state, country and continent may be stressful. It was an initial drawback for some parents during the school’s inaugural year. Sykes admits that he, too, was nervous about the prospect of sending his son abroad.

“A lot of things went through my mind,” he said. “With the economy, the government, politics, I wondered if the kids would be safe being on foreign soil. Will they be protected? In Thailand their food is different, their customs are different. Mosquitos carry different viruses there.”

Thrival works with a group called Rustic Pathways, whose fully-trained staff handles much of the logistical concerns of the trip, including setting up a place for the students to stay, flight accommodations, after-school supervision and activities, and any other needs the students have while they are there. Parents held a video conference with the Rustic Pathways group, which was on the ground in Thailand, and the measures they had in place to keep the kids’ safe, from security to healthcare, eased Sykes’ fears.

“They constantly communicated,” he said. “They had a gentleman who had 30-plus years of experience, others with 20-plus years. They kept reassuring us it would be OK. Miss India sent (parents) a weekly report. We saw pictures of what they were doing, received a daily itinerary on what time breakfast was, what time they were studying. No cell phones, different things like that. It was kind of a soft cushion.”

A blog was also set up so parents and others could keep up with what the students were doing.

Although Trevon wasn’t nervous going to a foreign country, he admits it took a little getting used to. “You have to prepare yourself,” said Trevon. “No one can really do it for you. But we were never alone. They were there to help if we needed anything. It was a good support system.”

Hui echoes Sykes’ sentiments, adding that the small class sizes at Thrival foster a family atmosphere — making it somewhat easier for students to be away from their families.

“We are family,” said Hui. “We know parents are nervous. I am nervous. But by the time we leave we won’t be strangers taking your kids halfway around the world. The teachers are in communication with the students; they eat dinner together. We build trust.”

Thrival is funded through donations from corporate sponsors, grants and other sources. Students and parents are not asked to participate in fundraising activities, but that doesn’t mean students receive a free ride.

“We recognize that international travel comes from privilege,” said Hui. “We are supporting (students), but they are putting in the hard work. This is the opportunity of a lifetime and they earn it through their dedication and hard work. Our classes are demanding and have strict, rigid deadlines, and the students work really hard. We make sure they know nothing in life is free.”

Sykes said since attending Thrival, he has seen “a world of difference” in his son.

“It helped him dramatically,” said Sykes. “He has grown so much. His respect for property and himself and others has risen, and he listens more. He outgrew the shelter I made for him. In many ways, he outgrew me. And I’m OK with that.”

Hui said students responded remarkably well to the program, which has expanded from 20 seats the first year to 60 for the 2018-19 school year. Students are admitted on a first-come, first-served basis, with a lottery set up in the event they can’t keep up with demand.

Students who complete the program transition back into their home school for their senior year. Trevon, for example, was a student at Tech, and transitions back there this year, with new experiences under his belt.

“He fell in love with it,” Sykes said. “I recommend Thrival to anybody. I wish this was a two-year program, and some parents wish it was a four-year program. They have done so much for (my son).”

Trevon said his experience was life-changing. “I got a different perspective on the world,” he said. “Those people were going through a lot of stuff, and didn’t have much, but they were thankful to be alive.”

As Trevon prepares to start his senior year at Arsenal Tech, he encourages any student to get involved in Thrival Academy, and to not let anything stand between them and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“Do it,” said Trevon. “Take the chance. Take the risk. It’s worth it.”

For more information on Thrival Academy, contact India Hui at or call 317.969.5583. Thrival is currently enrolling 11th-grade students for the 2018-19 school year, which begins August 6, 2018.