Road construction in front of the La Tierra Community School on North Virginia Avenue seemed to be no bother for the 18 faculty and staff busy with preparations to welcome 134 students Thursday morning — 25 will be in a small house next door transformed into an expanded, two-grade middle school.
Director Lenka Studnicka was aglow with excitement as she showed off a new patio complete with bright blue, yellow, red and green picnic tables, a multi-color stone labyrinth and wood fence that will be decorated with student-produced poetry and artwork. On the far side of the front yard will soon be a pond complete with ducks; children will grow watermelons in a nearby garden.
She is most thrilled about the 40 percent growth in the 8-year-old school since she arrived a year ago is enabling the school to expand into a sixth-seventh combined middle school with eighth grade to be added next year. Growth is intended to be slow and steady so as to allow all to acclimate to what will be not so much a classroom, but a “home,” Studnicka said. She said the school expansion is an option families wanted so as to offer students intimate, yet remarkable and experiential academic opportunities. A river rafting trip in Utah is one of the possibilities for the end of the school year.
Middle School teacher Cal Seabaugh, who taught a combined fifth- and sixth-grade class last year, said the combined sixth-seventh grade class is “exciting,” as this offers a gradual transition for students, many of who have been at La Tierra for several years. Part of the instructional practice of this middle grade school will be building a community classroom, with the focus on academic rigor and “raising good human beings,” Seabaugh said.
“This is a pivotal year, physically and emotionally,” Seabaugh said.
The rambling space — that includes a kitchen, comfy furniture and modern technology with a big backyard where the students can garden, sit and read, or play soccer with friends — is designed to be a “safe” shelter where students feel free to be themselves as they explore and research ancient civilization and link that to their world today, Seabaugh said.
One of his students last year, Gwen Felo, stopped in to help Seabaugh with setting up the new class. She said she is looking forward to this year because “as long as I get to be with the best teacher I’m happy, however this goes.”
La Tierra’s most veteran, combined second- and third-grade teacher David McNelly remembers when the school was one big classroom with 13 students in three grades. What he appreciates about the growth is how more families are embracing the school’s philosophy of educating the “whole child.”
McNelly credited Studnicka with “amazing” professional development grounded in brain development, global awareness and positive discipline. Classrooms this year all have “safe spaces” where children can take breaks — one has an Indian teepee where a child can go and destress, Studnicka said.
All La Tierra students are taught Spanish, and the arts are integrated into the academic curriculum so creativity is integral to all learning, said Studnicka and the teachers.
Second year teacher Elise Corcoran is eager to translate her real life experience working on sailboats into her fifth-grade theme about inventions that changed the world. Students will study the Wright Brothers and make model airplanes; in language arts they will write their own graphic novels.
New kindergarten teacher Leah Christian said play, and snails, will be her key learning tools — the snails on campus away for children to connect to the environment.
La Tierra’s latest experiment, and expansion, is all about “raising whole human beings” capable of critical thinking, problem solving and creativity that connects them to the new world outside their classroom doors, Studnicka said.
“It’s a time of exciting change,” McNelly concluded.