GREENSBORO — A second-story window of a new school downtown frames a bit of the grit and grandeur of the center city, from the industrial back corner of the News & Record to the high tower of the Lincoln Financial building.
Just inside that window, a couple of sixth-graders work out long division problems in erasable marker on the pane, laughing together at mistakes before wiping them away and starting again.
The Experiential School of Greensboro is a new public charter school located at the corner of South Church and East Washington streets in a building that’s been a candy factory and most recently served as a hub for social services.
The downtown location is a key part of the school leaders’ plan for “experiential” education — basically learning by doing.
“We really see the community as the classroom,” said Melissa Bocci, a co-director of the school.
Just like at any public school, students here learn the state standards and will take tests on them at the end of the year. But it’s also a school built around alternative education strategies. That includes sharing portfolios and mastery checklists with parents instead of A-F grades, and having students practice and demonstrate what they’ve learned through projects they choose.
Their idea is for students to use academic skills — like long division, for example — to explore their local community, and also reflect on larger issues of justice and fairness in society. Some students have been brainstorming ideas about how to help the homeless people in the area, while others have been involved in an art project to make houses for the cats in need of adoption at the downtown cat cafe.
The students moved in Dec. 3 after spending the earlier part of their first semester in a temporary location in a church across town while renovations on the space finished up.
The school has 246 students, selected by lottery from all who were interested. Many students are from within about 5 miles or so from the school, but there’s also a bunch from other areas of the county and even a few from surrounding counties.
There’s bus transportation available within the county, $4 boxed lunches catered by Deep Roots Market most days of the week, and Mellow Mushroom pizza on Wednesdays. About 37 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, although that help is provided by the school rather than the federal government in this case.
Right now the school houses kindergarten through sixth grade with plans to add seventh grade next year and eighth grade the year after that. The grades are organized into “houses” — there’s one for kindergarten, then first and second, third and fourth, and fifth and sixth.
Each house has its own space. For example, all classes for third- and fourth-graders meet in a single, large, open room on the first floor, divided by tall shelves, and centered around a common area filled with tables and chairs.
Kris DeBell’s classroom area is in a nook between the shelves on one side and the wall on the other. There are no desks here, just a rug, some benches and a few tables spilling over from the common section.
DeBell said when it’s time to do written work or reading, students can spread out as they like — sitting on the floor and using the bench like a table, grabbing a clipboard or taking a seat at the tables in the center.
“We can use different seats, like wobble stools and yoga balls, and we do walking field trips,” explained third-grader Alec Donaldson, a member of DeBell’s class, about the things that are different from his old school.
Two weeks ago — before the snow hit — DeBell and her students walked over to the Greensboro History Museum, about 15 minutes away on Summit Avenue. The third- and fourth-grade classes were just starting a unit on Greensboro, timed with the move downtown.
And so, on a recent Monday afternoon, DeBell gathered her class for a recap and discussion of what they’d discovered at the museum. They found seats in a circle around the carpet, some on the benches, some cross-legged on the floor.
Students divided into groups they’d been in for the museum visit, spread out to go over answers to their museum scavenger hunt worksheet and then came back to the circle to report their group’s findings.
Besides helping her students think about what they’d seen at the museum, DeBell had another goal in mind.
She and the other teachers working with third- and fourth-graders are going to ask each of their students to pick a topic related to Greensboro and then research and present that topic. DeBell suggested to the students that they could consider picking something that caught their interest at the museum.
Students’ ideas were all over the place. A couple of students were interested in Greensboro’s art, including murals and graffiti, and a few wanted to learn about Yum Yum ice cream. Some students were interested in topics related to slavery and the Civil War, such as black slaves in Greensboro and the role of Quakers in opposing slavery. Alec and another boy wanted to know more about “friendly fire,” a term that came up in an exhibit at the museum that refers to soldiers being shot accidentally by their own side.
In conjunction with their individual research projects, students are going to contribute to a timeline of the history of the city. They are also exploring Greensboro in mathematics — looking up local real estate prices and comparing them, for example, to practice working with large numbers. In science, they’ll be learning about local animals, plants and fossils.
Bocci and Moore, the school’s other co-director, said teachers have an “I Can” checklist for each unit.
The checklist provides room for teachers to give scores of 0-4 and to provide supporting evidence for whether or not students have mastered about the standards tied to the unit, about 60 of them in the Greensboro unit. There are state standards in math, science, English language arts and social studies. There are also standards around classroom behavior and work ethic, as well as for social justice learning.
School leaders adopted social justice standards for anti-bias education published by Teaching Tolerance, a long-running project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
On the “I Can” checklist, those standards include things like, “I know people who are like me and different from me, and I treat each person with respect” and “I know that words, behaviors, rules and laws that treat people unfairly based on their group identities cause real harm.”
“We can teach them through discussion, how you disagree and agree with each other and listen to people’s perspectives,” Moore said. “I think it’s important for students to learn how to have those conversations.”