Covid Makes an Antiwoke Fortress of a New Age Florida School
Centner Academy’s skepticism of masks and vaccines proves ‘a highly effective curation process.’
By James Taranto, WSJ
April 7, 2023 1:57 pm ET
Gabriela Jiminez with students in the mindfulness room.
PHOTO: COURTESY CENTNER ACADEMY
“This is Miss Gabriela,” Leila Centner says. “She’s our mindfulness coach.” I’m visiting Centner Academy, the private K-12 school Mrs. Centner and her husband, David, founded in 2019 after his retirement as a “serial tech entrepreneur.” In the “mindfulness room” I watch Gabriela Jimenez lead a circle of fifth-graders in an exercise that involves passing a candle around and formulating “an awesome wish that you have for yourself.”
“Do we have to say it out loud?” a girl asks.
“Well, you don’t have to,” Ms. Jimenez answers. But it would be helpful: “When we express what we want, we move the energy from the bottom, from the first chakra all the way to the throat. So we manifest things when we speak about them.”
You might call Centner a countercultural campus; it calls itself “America’s Happiest School.” “Mindfulness is interwoven into the fabric of the school,” says my tour guide, Josh Hills, whose title—no joke—is director of brain optimization. He shows me another room, which he says is “dedicated to failure.” Here, students undertake projects in “Lego robotics, 3D printing, architecture” and other technical pursuits. It’s a sort of safe space: “We remove the stigma behind failure,” Mr. Hills says. “If we have kids who are not scared to fall or fail, then we have kids who are not scared to reach.”
At the school cafeteria, the food is “sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, non-GMO, all organic, locally sourced,” Mr. Hills says. Much of it comes from the Centners’ Regener8 Farm and Retreat half an hour away in Homestead. Mr. Centner says he and his wife intend “to tightly integrate it into the school . . . so the kids actually go to the farm and have curriculum to teach them about science, Mother Earth, grounding, mindfulness, entrepreneurship.”
If you’re rolling your eyes, stop it. This New Age school is also resolutely and admirably antiwoke. Mr. Hills begins the tour by listing the three things he makes clear to visitors “before I let anybody into this building”:
First, “we have zero Covid policy at this point.” He doesn’t mean a zero-Covid policy; he means zero policy regarding Covid. Even by Florida standards, Centner moved quickly to return to normal during the pandemic, and its unorthodox approach drew indignation from local news organizations, one of which went so far as to urge the White House to intervene.
Second, “CRT”—critical race theory—“doesn’t exist in this building. We are all created equal. We all have equal opportunities, and we’re not in the business of telling anybody they may or may not have more privilege . . . based on skin tone. We don’t play that game in this building.”
Third, “we have a young men’s restroom and a young women’s restroom. We don’t allow anybody to pick what restroom they’re going to use.” If a pupil asks a grown-up about sex or sexual identity, “we say, ‘That’s a really great question. That’s probably a better conversation to have with your parent.’ ”
The Centners didn’t start out as culture warriors. “What happened through Covid opened our eyes,” Mrs. Centner says. “Oh my God, there is so much going on that has been going on for the last 20 years that we need to make a stance against.”
They watched the Chinese epidemic closely starting in January 2020 and were ready to act by the time its spread to the U.S. became undeniable. They shut the school down on March 16, 2020. Everything was fully online the next day. “We were probably the first school to go remote in all of Miami, maybe in the country,” Mr. Centner says. “But we were also the first school to reopen in the fall.”
Mrs. Centner sought expert opinions and concluded that the virus posed little threat to the school’s students or its mostly youthful staff. By the time the Miami-Dade County Public Schools announced a “staggered return for selected students” starting on Oct. 5, 2020, Centner was already back to normal.
At the time, normality was a brave act of defiance. Florida businesses reopened much earlier than those in blue states, but local governments and private companies in Miami still demanded that everyone don a face mask in almost all indoor public spaces. Not the Centners, who made masks optional. Some parents “were irate with me,” Mrs. Centner says. “How dare I allow other kids to not wear a mask? I’m putting their family’s lives at risk.”
The school brought in experts to brief parents on the inefficacy of masks. “Several parents took their masks off in the middle of the presentation as they’re learning information,” Mr. Centner recalls. “But most people get pretty stuck in their beliefs.” Some tagged the couple as “wacko” and withdrew their children from the school.
The conflict intensified in April 2021, when Florida made Covid vaccines available to all adults. Mrs. Centner was a skeptic. She says she had heard anecdotal reports from physicians about children getting sick “after being around their vaccinated parents or grandparents.” So while others across the country debated whether to make the shots mandatory, Mrs. Centner, out of what her husband calls “an abundance of caution,” took the opposite approach. She told teachers: “There’s two more months before the end of the school year. If you really want to get the vaccine, wait. Don’t do it around kids.”
The media pounced. “We had camera crews lined up here every single day trying to speak to teachers and parents,” Mr. Centner says. The Miami Herald quoted parents who described the school they had chosen as “insane and unreasonable and dangerous” and a “cult.” CBS correspondent Ed O’Keefe even asked White House press secretary Jen Psaki at a briefing “if there’s anything federal authorities can do to help the teachers in this case.” Mr. O’Keefe said the query was “on behalf of our Miami TV station.”
The ultimate result was a more harmonious school. Teachers who objected to the policy quit at the end of the school year, and many parents likewise voted with their feet. “It served to be a highly effective curation process,” Mr. Centner says. “The parents and administrators and teachers that were not fully aligned with us ran for the fences but were instantly, immediately replaced by families literally moving from all over the world. . . . A lot of these parents, these families, came from places where they felt like they were outcasts.”
That means there’s no conflict over the last two items on Mr. Hills’s list. “I don’t know why,” Mrs. Centner says, but “forced masks, forced vaccines, CRT, transgender seems to be in the same bundle of parents. . . . The new parents that came in were already anti all of that.”
In October 2021, the school announced that students would have to stay home for 30 days if they got vaccinated. It quickly abandoned that policy after Florida education officials called it “unreasonable, unnecessary and unduly burdensome.” On that point I side with the state. But the pandemic is over, and I leave Centner Academy impressed. If I had a daughter, I’d sooner enroll her here than in any school that might encourage her in the belief that she’s actually my son. It never hurts to be mindful of alternatives.
Mr. Taranto is the Journal’s editorial features editor.