We pull off of a rural gravel road into the parking lot of Prairie Creek Community School, sensing the joy as soon as we open our car doors and swing our sandaled feet into the dust. Beneath suspended solar panels, children climb and run and laugh. Parents line the roundabout–peering out from behind SUV and minivan windshields as their children soak up the first taste of Springtime sun.
We walk through the bright red doors, greeted by a central library, a sky high ceiling, and lovingly scuffed wood floors. There is a “word wall” chalked above the fiction books. One teacher steps over a line of backpacks in the hallway to shuffle her children out the door.
Though we are indoors, there are signs of nature everywhere. The classrooms surrounding the library are labeled “Robins” and “Kestrel” and “The Rookery.” The office smells like a well-worn book, and the building is alive with footsteps of children preparing for the weekend.
Touring this lively charter school with three fellow SFER members, I see the lessons of Campus Ecology, systems thinking, and exploratory education at work. As we move from Prairie Creek Community School’s historic entrance to its whimsical attic, we hear about its rich history and arts-based model.
Like the local Arcadia Charter School, Prairie Creek features project-based learning and education that goes beyond basic skill sets and standardized tests. Though the school has gone through many transitions since its 1920 beginning as a private one-room school, Prairie Creek’s mission statement retains many of the original traditions and themes outlined by the building’s founding population. For example, classes are still taught with a strong multi-age component– students having the same teacher for grades K-1, 2-3, and 4-5. When May arrives, the children can still be found parading about the town of Castle Rock–returning to their playground to dance around the May Pole in a tradition begun by their 19th century predecessors.
Prairie Creek Community School was authorized by the Northfield Public School District as an arts-focused charter school in 2002. The school is run by its own board of governors–several of whom have children enrolled at Prairie Creek and also hold leadership positions at St.Olaf College.
Climbing the steps to the upper floor of Prairie Creek feels like climbing the rungs of a ladder to the top of a giant tree house. When we reach the art room nestled into the corner of the lofted second story, the circular patches of carpeting arranged on the floor make me want to sit cross-legged and paint for hours. The school’s Director explains to us that this space serves as a reflection of Prairie Creek’s goals in action–a place for creativity, collaboration, and inquiry. Each year, the school implements an art residency. This year the guests were from the Flying Foot Forum–a Minnesota dance company “that fuses percussion and percussive dances with many other forms of music, dance and theater, telling unusual tales, creating a wild variety of characters, and exploring universal ideas in inventive and exciting new ways” (flyingfootforum.com). Members of Flying Foot worked with Prairie Creek students to put on a whimsical rendition of Alice in Wonderland–a culmination of everything they’d learned that would continue as a theme for the rest of the year.
In addition to this exciting yearly residency, the students of Prairie Creek also participate in an annual tradition of “city planning.” Each Spring, when green returns to the frozen midwestern landscape and most children begin to chomp at the bit for summer, 4th and 5th grade Prairie Creek students throw their minds and bodies into a 5 week project of epic proportion–recruiting younger children to help out.
Building to scale, these kids design and construct their own villages. Collaborating with their art teacher to raise homes and banks and shops, they see imagination turned into reality. Beyond aesthetics, the children negotiate banking systems, the implementation of government, the concept of the “land rush,” and the unpredictability of social structure. Generally, the kids opt for a Democracy. The Director chuckles as he remembers the year there was a Dictator.
I shake my head in disbelief as he speaks–imagining the leaders these children will become. They are building relationships and understanding the structures that run this country in ways that most American adults never will. In this project, they will fail and succeed over and over and over again.
I am amazed. I am also thinking about how this all works with a strict testing agenda that applies to district and charter schools alike. When I ask Director Tyler about how this kind of learning fits into the national emphasis on standardized testing, I receive a melancholy smirk. “That’s a great question…and one we are always thinking about.” He went on to emphasize the way that every charter school functions differently. Some focus on improving standardized test scores and pushing for college entrance and success (like Hiawatha Academy.) Others, like this one, see testing as more of an inconvenience.
The Prairie Creek Community School walks the line of testing very carefully. Director Tyler admits that the Math scores of his students are slightly lower than the average in the State, but that this is the risk of moving from an emphasis on foundation skills to an emphasis on holistic learning.
Thinking about achievement gaps, I follow up with a question about diversity and student recruitment. The Director’s eyes light up. This is a question he has also spent many hours pondering. There is a stigma that accompanies Prairie Creek’s reputation–the assumption that its population is reserved for the children of white upper class Professors working at the nearby prestigious Carleton and St. Olaf Colleges. Though it’s true that the format and location of the school does attract this demographic, Director Tyler is working hard to make sure that the benefits of a Prairie Creek education are not reserved for such a narrow niche.
Prairie Creek has made an effort to print all of its information in both Spanish and English, distributed it in communities of all income levels, and increased its special education staff dramatically. The school currently receives Title funding, features free and reduced price lunch, and continues to strive for more racial diversity. However, because word of mouth is the primary method of recruitment, and siblings of current students are given priority in enrollment, this kind of diversity is not coming very quickly to the student population. Director Tyler also noted that the area where a large Latino population in Northfield resides is located right around the corner from a high-performing district school.
Image from druckerinstitute.com
Beyond generous blocks of time for art and language (there is an emphasis on Spanish,) Prairie Creek teachers foster a cohesive school-wide community by implementing the Responsive Classroom model, using the “16 habits of mind” as a guideline, and relying on narrative as well as traditional assessment.
Image from firstname.lastname@example.org
From kindergarten through fifth grade, parents of Prairie Creek students can expect a tri-annual anecdotal report on their children and a 40-minute one-on-one conference. Teachers are expected to devote two hours per student to these Fall, Winter and Spring assessments, and each conference and narrative assessment demonstrates just how well the educators know the kids they are working with. Four full school days are set aside and devoted to the preparation and fulfillment of this feedback. Because teachers retain the same students for two years at a time, the relationships between families and educators become incredibly strong. Parents expect to work alongside their child’s teacher to set goals, track literacy development, and assess progress without formal grades.
Furthermore, the presence of all teachers at every school-wide recess session means that most teachers know every child in the entire school–whether they’ve had them in class or not. This opens the door for informal “check in” conversations each week–discussions where teachers can bring up concerns about individual students with their peers and develop conscientious plans of action. This kind of communication and collaborative environment for both students and teachers is why Prairie Creek has recently become a model environment for special needs student populations.
After our tour of Prairie Creek’s vibrant classrooms, quaint gymnasium, and museum-like wall of class photos, we had the opportunity to hear from two K-1 teachers. Flitting about a well-organized meeting room as they prepared the space for a gathering of next year’s kindergarten parents, the two women were the simultaneously images of endless energy and exhaustion. Their voices were draped in patient overtones as they talked about the range of ability levels in their classroom, the importance of “peer learning” that is fostered through “cubby buddies,” and the advantage of having 1/2 of your class be confident on the first day of school when you teach each cohort for two years. It is clear that these women are part of a strong family of teachers–one that looks out for all children collectively.
When we ask about the recent development in the school’s special education program, the women both tear up. They are moved–almost beyond words. Equipped with a range of paraprofessionals and a mission to embrace special needs children as an integral part of the community, Prairie Creek takes its child-centered approach seriously. The special education staff and students are included in every aspect of the day, and there is no “exclusion room.”
Because the population is so small and the community so closely knit, this is a place where all students can strive. Prairie Creek is proud to have a population of special education students that is higher than the public school average. The teachers and their Director are all emotional as they talk about their special needs children–noting that these are the kids who add the kind of diversity that is often overlooked.
In the last five minutes of our visit, these three passionate educators sum up their school: “This is a place where every child has the right to a beautiful experience.”
I walk out of those red doors smiling and curious. I am left wishing that this kind of innovation and exploration could continue from elementary school through college. When do we stop thinking in stories and embracing the building of villages and start worrying about test scores and “real world” success?
This is not a school model fit for every single child. In fact, I don’t believe there is one method or formula that can work for all of this country’s students. However, there is much to learn from Prairie Creek Community School.
Someday, I hope to build a village.