By Sandra Cyr
Shortly before 1:15 on a recent Wednesday afternoon, the multipurpose room at the Exploris School Elementary Program is quiet. Volunteers filter in, grab their materials from Explorations Coordinator Andrea Wallenbeck, and stake out corners of the room to await the flood of students that soon pour in. There is excitement in the air as each classroom arrives – students dart toward their groups, connecting with peers from other classes, running, jumping, doing cartwheels. Gradually, each group departs, off to experience the world through what Exploris calls community-led learning.
Building upon the success of their Middle School, the Exploris School Elementary Program opened its doors in the fall of 2014. As with any new charter school, the Elementary Program has faced numerous challenges, including opening its doors 6 weeks late, residing in temporary housing, and operating with a limited budget and resources. But the idea of community that is so central to the mission of this charter school has allowed for the Elementary Program to burst out of the gate.
The Explorations program for K-5 students has played a big role in that success. Explorations is similar to the service-learning component that exists at the Middle School in that students build community connections through weekly classes. Much like an elective program you may find in higher grades, Explorations provides opportunities for active, experiential learning outside the classroom. Community members submit ideas for learning opportunities, and sometimes Andrea and co-Coordinator Sonja McKay will come up with ideas that they will propose to the community and seek volunteers to teach. According to one parent, Explorations is ‘the most Exploris thing that happens at Exploris.’ During any one session, up to 20 classes may be offered.
Replicating Successful Programs
The program is modeled on similar programs at Anser Charter School and Palousse Prairie School in Idaho. Pioneered at Anser, connecting the community and parents to the work of the school has provided a foundation for students to become critical thinkers. As the Founding Director of the Palousse Prairie School, Exploris Executive Director Summer Clayton found the idea of community-led learning to be a great way to engage parents who wanted to give back to the school while expanding the reach of the, at the time, 4 teachers in the school.
Replicating the program at Exploris developed out of a need to address several problems that any small organization may face. Exploris does not receive the same amount of funding a traditional public school receives. With limited budgets and resources, staff are forced to make the most with what little they have, including lack of a planning period for teachers. Explorations takes students out of the classrooms for 2 hours each week, allowing planning and meeting time for teachers. Each of the classes held during the 6 week sessions are run by community members. Parents, grandparents, as well as employees from local businesses connected to the school lead sessions or volunteer to assist in sessions on a variety of topics from sewing to photography to martial arts to architecture.
But the benefits to the program go far beyond providing planning time. One of the biggest benefits Andrea and Sonja have seen is simply the pure enjoyment the students gain from these learning experiences. This is obvious from the excitement expressed by the students entering the multipurpose room. The thank you notes the young students write the instructors after each session offer a good sense of what the take aways have been from these opportunities. Feedback from parents is often the same message over and over, how on Explorations day, their child talks all evening about what they experienced that day.
The parents aren’t just hearing about these learning opportunities, they are experiencing it first hand as volunteers. This experience has helped the parents gain a greater insight into and appreciation for the hard work that goes into lesson planning, running a class, and being responsible for student learning. The experience changes the relationship between the teachers and the parents. Teachers gain insights into the parents, and the parents are more empathetic towards the effort it takes to teach every day. By involving parents in a less traditional way, it strengthens the school community. “I think that in many ways, schools have gotten more and more isolated. We think that it is important that schools return to this place where they are the center of a community. We have this community feel because of the way that we engage our parents, and the way that we engage the immediate surroundings,” says Clayton.
Another benefit to the program is co-learning takes place. Explorations takes place twice a week – on Monday afternoons for K-1 students, and on Wednesday afternoons for grades 2 through 5. Classrooms mix during the two hour sessions and cross-grade level learning occurs. This helps the student community to grow and learn together.
With a combined 20+ years of teaching at Exploris alone, Wallenbeck and McKay are amazed at how well the program has run. Considering the program – and the school – is brand new, and over 100 volunteers have been involved so far, there have been very little, if any issues. Snow days and sick days have cut into volunteer time, but the parents “go to great lengths to make sure they can cover what they have committed to because they feel that passionately about it, which is pretty cool,” says McKay.
The mission of Exploris is to create an experiential learning community, and this has been essential to the success of the Explorations program. Exploris works hard behind the scenes taking steps to ensure safety of staff, students and volunteers without creating a barrier to make guests feel welcome and want to come back and really be a part of what is going on at the school. Community involvement can benefit any organization, and through the Explorations program, the Exploris School is continuing to build upon its rich relationships with nonprofits and businesses in the area. By bringing the community into the school, learning opportunities are expanded beyond the reach of the staff, and the bond between school and community is strengthened.
The Exploris School in Raleigh, NC is a learning community that engages students in a rigorous, relevant, relationship-based education through experiential, project-based learning that empowers students to build a connected, just and sustainable world.