Gatewood transforms into an environmentally-focused school

Teacher points to leaves on a tree as the class looks up at the tree leaves.

Imagine a school that incorporates outdoor learning and holistic education, a place that celebrates empathy, and encourages scholars to be stewards of the Earth. All this while students are building rigorous academic skills that they will need in the real world. These are some of the goals of Vision 2031, and Gatewood Elementary is well on its way.

Under the leadership of Dr. George Nolan, principal of Gatewood Elementary, the school is transforming into an environmentally-focused school. Last year, a state-of-the-art greenhouse was installed, and a naturalist position was created to provide project-based activities and enrichment for all students. Later this year, scholars will welcome a few farm animals to the building grounds to enhance real-world environmental learning.

“We want to capitalize on our strengths and make sure every child who walks through our door will feel loved, and experience learning in a positive way,” Nolan said.

Nolan worked with his teaching staff to create a vision for Gatewood that provides restorative practices, where students feel welcomed, validated, and affirmed, and where students have a sense of agency through inquiry-led learning.

“I want this to be the best elementary school in the area that serves all kids and provides a welcoming and supportive environment,” he said.

Learning with a naturalist

When it comes to environmentally-focused concepts, students don’t have to look much farther than outside the school's door. Gatewood is unique in that its grounds include woods and trails — a perfect setting for an environmental school. The expansive school grounds have several natural outdoor classrooms, a forest, gardens, a greenhouse, and soon it will be home to goats and chickens.

To lean deeper into Gatewood’s natural environment, a new position was developed. Jim Ikhaml, Gatewood’s naturalist, is known to students as Mr. Ike. With Mr. Ike, students learn through exploration in nature. Last week, students found basswood and dogwood trees on the school grounds and created artwork made from crayon rubbings of leaves.

Through hands-on learning, students are deeply engaged and invested in the topics and concepts. This type of learning has been at the forefront of the outdoor kindergarten program where teachers use an inquiry-based learning approach inspired by the interests of the students.

Outdoor learning

Students' curiosity and observations of the world around them are driving the learning experiences in the outdoor kindergarten program. A hallmark of this learning is that there is space and place for students to wonder.

Teachers bring the resources and standards, but students are deciding the subject matter. For example, earlier this year, kindergartners found a mushroom in the grass. They thought it looked like a flower, so the teacher leaned into their curiosity. They brought out a magnifying glass to inspect the mushroom, measured how tall it was, and observed its color, texture, and its other physical traits.

Student holds up a leaf and inspects it.

“It’s really the students that ask the questions and then we figure out how to show them how to discover the answers to their questions,” kindergarten teacher Ellen Dischinger said.

Gatewood’s outdoor kindergarten program is in its inaugural year, and it's clear that this approach to learning has garnered parent support.

“I believe this program is providing our daughter with age-appropriate academics that are incorporated into an active and engaging environment. I appreciate hearing stories from my daughter about how she practiced letters using natural material manipulatives,” said Karlee Anderson, a kindergarten parent.

Building community with holistic learning

With the outdoor and environmental focus at Gatewood, students will see first-hand where their food comes from and they will have an active role in creating it. Every class will have a planter’s box where scholars will be in charge of caring for a selection of plants from tomatoes and mushrooms to peppers and spinach. A wood-fired pizza oven will be installed on the grounds and students will be able to use the food they grow as toppings on pizza.

“How much more holistic can you get than growing the food, preparing the food, then eating the food,” Ikhaml said.

In addition to teaching, Mr. Ike is creating a culture of awareness around environmental science. At lunch, he is also teaching students about food composting. Scholars are growing in their understanding of what happens to their food waste.

The culture of environmental awareness will continue in the greenhouse where students will start growing native trees. When the trees reach a certain size, scholars will plant them outside. Students will see the trees’ growth and impact on the school community over time.

The implementation of experiential and inquiry-based learning techniques through an environmental lens is creating a newfound energy at Gatewood in both the students and teachers. The possibilities are endless.

“What we want to do is give every child an opportunity to learn in a different way,” Nolan said. “We want to lean in on what are best practices and connected to Vision 2031 so we can ensure kids are getting nontraditional learning that sets them up for success in a global marketplace.”