Teachers say ‘flexible learning’ will help students achieve success

Craig Cunningham/Daily Mail
Kindergarten teacher Samantha Johnson, right, and her husband Jay, who took a day off from work to help, set up her classroom at newly constructed Edgewood Elementary School. “It’s like a dream come true,” Johnson said of the school. She said excited doesn’t begin to describe how she and the staff feel about the school.
Craig Cunningham/ Daily Mail
Bright colors will greet students at Edgewood Elementary School in Charleston when they arrive next week for their first day of school.
Craig Cunningham/ Daily Mail
Though the inside of the $21 million school is complete, outside work, like landscaping, will continue after students arrive on Aug. 11. Charlie Price, the owner of Riverside Sod Farm and also known as “The Sodfather,” spreads straw to cover the recently planted grass seed at Edgewood Elementary School.

Kanawha County’s new school has iPads, state-of-the-art classrooms and diagnostic centers where students can monitor the building’s energy use.

While it has been billed a school of the future, it shares many similarities with the open-concept schools that were popular in the 1970s.

But Pam Dorini, principal at Edgewood Elementary, will be the first person to tell you her school isn’t an open-concept school.

“We have flexible learning spaces,” she said. “I know that sounds like a mix of vernacular, but there is a huge difference between open-concept schools and what we have.”

Following the abrupt social, political and cultural changes of the ’60s and ’70s, open-concept schools started popping up all over the country. These schools didn’t have walls to separate classes, so teachers eschewed traditional teaching methods for more communal, hands-on learning.

While some students thrived in the new environment, many more became overstimulated and couldn’t adapt.

Open-concept schools around the country, like Piedmont Elementary and Andrew Jackson Middle, ultimately failed, and walls were constructed to return them to a more traditional setting.

Despite failing, the open area school design is slowly making a comeback.

While many classrooms at Edgewood Elementary are open and merge grade levels, preschool, kindergarten and first grade classrooms will remain traditional. The rest will be merged into two classes of second and third graders and two classes of fourth and fifth graders.

These four classrooms are called “exploritoriums” and contain about 50 students, three teachers and one specialist. The room is open, but there are distinct areas for math, reading and science.

The purpose of these blended classrooms is to make school more interactive for students, who are some of the lowest performing in the county.

School officials are hoping the change in philosophy will help students, who will now be tasked with discovering knowledge on their own.

“We’re their facilitator,” said Sue Baldwin, a second and third grade reading specialist. “We’re here to guide them along the way.”

This method shares many similarities with those used in open-concept schools where learning is more personalized and student-centered rather than generic and teacher-directed.

“Students are going to be more responsible for what they learn,” said Kate Elkins, one of the teachers who will share a classroom with Baldwin.

In these exploritoriums, students will be taught in a large group, but they will spend most of their time in groups of similar skill-level working on projects that require them to use everything they learn.

Instead of focusing on one subject at a time, students will have to draw knowledge from social studies, math, science and other subjects for each project. Many teachers say this approach better reflects real-world learning.

While Edgewood Elementary teachers believe their students will thrive in a new environment, there are concerns.

“Class management will be the hardest part,” Baldwin said, later adding that there is a chance the classrooms will get noisy and distracting at times.

But, that was taken into consideration when the school was designed. Each exploritorium has closed off rooms for students working on more lively projects so those who are reading or in need of quiet aren’t disrupted.

There’s also the potential for teachers to clash, but school officials made conscious pairings so each classroom is staffed with compatible teachers.

While the teachers acknowledge there will be difficulties at first — they said it will take a few weeks for them to determine how to group their kids — they said students will ultimately benefit.

“In a typical classroom, it’s hard to take a kid who may be behind and intervene,” Elkins said, later adding that having four teachers in each classroom will allow one to work with students who need additional help without slowing down the rest of the class.

Dorini said there are similarities between Edgewood Elementary and open-concept schools, but she thinks its blend of tradition and innovation will make it a success.

While school officials say the school will open on Aug. 11, construction is not yet complete.

Superintendent Ron Duerring said the inside of the building will be ready, but crews will finish exterior work like landscaping during the following weeks.

The project, which was expected to be completely finished by the start of school, was set back by harsh winter weather and unexpected costs.

Originally, the school’s estimated cost was only $12.5 million, but that number skyrocketed when the project had to be relocated.

Moving the school to its current site cost the county an additional $6.5 million, which was used to clear trees, move land and build an access road.

After years of planning and construction, the school’s total cost is about $21 million. Kanawha County is paying $11 million of that sum while the state School Building Authority contributed nearly $10 million.

Contact writer Samuel Speciale at sam.speciale@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-4886. Follow him at www.twitter.com.

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