What makes a Great Elementary School?
What are the markers of a truly excellent elementary education? Here are five key areas that parents should consider when exploring school options, gleaned from 25 years of educational excellence at our Lower School North Campus:
Opportunities to interact with nature: Young children learn best when they explore and discover. And they are better able to focus, absorb knowledge and make connections when they spend ample time outdoors. The Lower School North Campus at WT’s seven-acre outdoor classroom environment integrates with our curriculum. Observing a butterfly’s emergence from a chrysalis, growing pumpkins and squash in the learning garden, tracking the development of frogs from tadpoles, sampling water to see how the elements interact, forging a nature trail, and creating imaginary worlds with natural materials are part of everyday life. These and other outdoor activities help children make authentic connections between classroom learning and the real world, and allow our teachers to learn what motivates each child, so they can tailor the learning program and create excitement about coming to school each day.
Faculty as Experts: Professional development is critical to preparing teachers to guide each child’s progression through the curriculum. Even more important: a faculty that can enhance instructional practices through their own expertise. Faculty participate in a formative development system to engage in honest self-reflection, share in candid discussion, and use the insights they glean from the process to accelerate their growth as teachers in order to enhance student learning. The focus is on improving teachers’ practices and providing each teacher with the on-going feedback necessary to do that. As part of collaborative groups that meet monthly, faculty get feedback on student work, lesson plans, and challenges they are having in their classes. Faculty also attend workshops and conferences outside of WT and bring back what they have learned to their classrooms and to their colleagues. WT faculty embody a growth mindset that places enhanced student learning at the heart of their development as teachers.
Character development: There is more to education than becoming a great scholar, thinker, or worker. Young children are not only developing academic skills, but also learning socially and emotionally. School is the perfect place for children to explore their role in a community, develop proficiency in relationships, learn how to interact ethically and respectfully, and appreciate the people around them. WT’s close-knit community embraces the credo, “Think also of the comfort and the rights of others.” Children reflect on this concept, and are guided intentionally to put it into action. In addition, our use of the Responsive Classroom® approach ensures that we are building a supportive learning community that brings out the best in each student.
Individualized approach: Children do not develop in lockstep, and their schools should not expect them to learn in lockstep. In the early years, tapping into each child’s natural curiosity and excitement for learning happens when the curriculum emerges from the children’s passions. Bears? Airplanes? Gardening? Physics? No matter the child’s affinity, talented Pre-Kindergarten teachers guide their students to develop important skills and habits of mind by exploring almost any topic in depth. Later, as school focuses more on core academic skills, it is important to provide adequate levels of acceleration and enrichment to challenge each child at the appropriate level. At WT, we meet the varied needs of our students through an Academic Enrichment and Challenge program that provides both in-classroom learning to enrich the curriculum and special out-of-classroom instruction for students who are ready to move past their peers academically.
Learn more about Academic Enrichment and Challenge.
21st Century Skills: When today’s Kindergarteners graduate from college, they will enter careers unheard of today; use technology that has yet to be invented; and face global problems requiring unprecedented levels of ingenuity, critical thinking, and global competence. To prepare students, schools must be forward thinking and grounded in the best practices of a developmentally appropriate elementary education.
At WT, we use technology intentionally to enhance core learning—learning that focuses on identifying and solving problems, understanding systems, and fostering creativity. For example, technology augments the study of monarch butterflies, as students use Chrome books to research migration patterns and identify the types of caterpillars they encounter on our campus. Other important 21st century skills are developed through foreign language learning and the arts. Starting in Pre-Kindergarten, when children’s supple, open minds make it easier to acquire a new language, students learn Spanish or Mandarin. Through seamless incorporation of the visual and performing arts in our curriculum, children develop creativity, empathy, poise, and confidence; the arts nurture the ability to observe closely and analyze critically, to communicate effectively, and to appreciate cultures, nature, and humanity.