Sisu Academy

Gonzaga alum Jabez LeBret is working to open the Sisu Academy somewhere in the Scripps Ranch area near San Diego. The boarding school will be tuition free and only accept students from the San Diego area.

As a Jesuit university, Gonzaga familiarizes its students with the concept of being men and women for others.

For GU alumnus Jabez LeBret (’03), this way of thought has become more than a mission statement. It has become a career.

LeBret was only a teenager when he found himself homeless and unable to finish high school. Despite his circumstances, LeBret continued to constantly think about his future and the great potential he knew he possessed. 

He set his sights on attending GU and spent his summer working to turn his dream into a reality. 

“I was a pretty nontraditional Gonzaga applicant,” Lebret said. “I hadn’t taken my SAT, I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have a diploma from high school because I hadn’t graduated.”

After working to get his GED and attending many meetings with both the admissions and financial aid offices, LeBret found his home at GU. He distinctly remembers Dr. Phillip Ballinger, who was dean of admissions at the time, as playing a major role in his journey to GU.

“He really took a chance on me” said LeBret. “Something he said in the process that I didn’t realize at the time what he was really referring to was ‘don’t let me down.’ And I’d always kind of assumed at the time what he meant was be a good student and get good grades and make sure you go to class. What I think he really meant was be a steward of Gonzaga. And that extends far beyond being a student, that extends to the rest of your life.”

LeBret has dedicated his life to doing just that. He is currently in the process of opening a tuition-free boarding school for underprivileged youth in San Diego, called Sisu Academy.

Sisu will offer its students a multitude of unique learning opportunities including workshops for developing entrepreneurial spirit and project based learning scenarios. It will have a maker’s studio and a small farm, both of which will be housed on campus.

One of the main focuses of the school’s curriculum will be an approach called design thinking, a process of innovating and designing with human needs in mind. 

“We have a basic idea of what our school is … but we are definitely bringing in students to help us co-design the school from the beginning so it’s not just us adults saying 'This is what I think you need,' but instead actually listening and designing it with them,” said Mindy Ahrens, who has 20 years of teaching experience and will be the principal of Sisu Academy. “We bring one lens and they bring another lens and together as partners we will be designing.”

The school also plans to have a STEAM curriculum, which is a variation that adds the arts to the more widespread STEM curriculum. 

“I’m all about science, technology, engineering and math, but the arts and music and theater, those are important parts of the world we live in,” said Lebret. “We are graduating students that are game-changers. Students that are going to go out and make a splash in the world and have an impact on other peoples' lives and yes, they need STEM but they also need to develop that curiosity and adoration of the finer things and the more beautiful things in the world.” 

Another major part of the Sisu experience will be dedicated to social emotional learning. The school plans to have a ratio of four counselors per grade level, which will each consist of 90 students.

Sisu will take students from the greater San Diego area and will start working with students in October. The first semester will begin with eight students and two teachers and the second semester will see the addition of more students and begin with 30. Boarding is expected to begin in either January or February. 

Scott Tritt, who is serving as a donor and adviser for Sisu, was initially drawn to LeBret for both his well thought-out vision for the school and his intense desire to succeed. 

 “I think that real innovation and change comes not necessarily from building something from the ground up ... But the real innovation I think comes more in assembling successful pieces and putting them together in a new way,” Tritt said. 

Tritt, who is a San Diego local and works with a variety of nonprofits, continued to speak highly of LeBret.

“He’s taken pieces that are proven and putting them together in a way that he’s going to get more success from putting them together,” he said. “And that’s exciting too because on the one hand its innovative and on the other hand its tested.” 

LeBret and collaborators were intentional when choosing a name to encompass the spirit of the school. Sisu is the Finnish concept for stoic determination, grit, bravery, resilience and hardiness, which LeBret believes are traits the incoming students will embody. 

“If you end up at our school, you already have ‘sisu,’ you just may not know it yet,” said LeBret. “Our job is to help you channel that into something amazing. Personally, it is something I have certainly developed not always by choice but it is something I am grateful that I have and something that I think all of us have in us, we just don’t know how to tap into it.”

Over the years, LeBret has continued to think back to the way his time at GU helped to shape his life choices and personal philosophy. 

“After graduation and embarking on the journey of what it meant to enter the world,” he said, “there’s always this nagging Jesuit-ness that creeps in as time goes on that is saying in the back of your mind ‘make sure you're doing good by the world, and caring for others, and keeping an eye out for chances to make an impact on the lives around you.'”

As of now, Sisu is relying on donors for the majority of its funding, but plans to be financially self-sustaining within eight to 10 years. LeBret, Ahrens and Tritt are all hopeful about eventually sharing the schooling model and expanding Sisu nationwide.

Danielle Duchene is a staff writer.

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