Community as Classroom: KO Initiates Program To Engage Students in Local Learning

Dan Gleason, Head of the Upper School

On January 30, 2020, our Board of Trustees voted to approve a new strategic vision for Kingswood Oxford. The approval followed months of information-gathering and iteration by the Strategic Design Team, with strong input from faculty and staff, Board members, students, parents, alumni, and even recent accreditors. The new vision highlights several aspects of learning at KO – local connections, interdisciplinary thinking, student leadership, collaboration – that we believe are crucial for student engagement and essential to emphasize within our current program. In short, our strategic vision defines who we will become, and it specifies the exciting programmatic choices we are committing to.

While there are many key elements within the strategic vision, I would like to focus in this post on what is likely the most fundamental curricular initiative in the strategy: local experiences and partnerships. According to the vision itself, KO faculty will engage students “by expanding the classroom beyond our campus and partnering with people and institutions in the greater Hartford area.” We believe that these local connections are powerful motivators for learning, revealing in sharper relief the relevance and purpose of coursework.

The Power of Local Learning  

Schools that engage with local learning harness the power of the real world to motivate students and increase the relevance of the curriculum. In essence, local partnerships ask students to apply their classroom learning within a real-life situation, whether a meeting with a non-profit organization, benchwork at a biomedical lab, or a presentation at an art museum. One key accelerator for local learning is the richness of the context: in the medical lab, students don’t just learn the facts of science but also see firsthand what scientists do every day; in the art museum, students don’t just learn about art (or even analyze it) but also see how exhibits bring those ideas to life for visitors. This authenticity is compelling, and it helps students understand the power and purpose of their learning.

Promising Precedents

Certainly, building local experiences into curriculum is not a brand-new idea; several influential independent and public schools have created programs that do this. For example, The Winchester Thurston School (in Pittsburgh) pioneered the “City as Our Campus” program, and it has served them as a powerful platform for authentic learning. The Lovett School in Atlanta has found success with the semester-long Lab Atlanta program, which asks students to dive into local civic challenges. The Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a public school for gifted STEM students, has used its Student Inquiry and Research program to place students in cutting-edge research projects at local universities and organizations. And Iowa Big, a program that draws students from three districts in Cedar Rapids, challenges students to help solve authentic problems posed by community organizations. 

Here at KO many teachers have been designing local learning experiences to energize their curriculum for years. Students in U.S. History have taken part in the Witness Stones project, an initiative run by local teachers that challenges high school students to research the lives of enslaved people who helped found Hartford-area communities. Through this project, KO students have presented their findings to community members and created public markers to recognize those otherwise forgotten founders. Students in our ninth-grade Earth and Environmental Science class have conducted longitudinal testing of a nearby waterway (Trout Brook), gathering data on water quality as part of a state-funded grant. Students have also taken learning walks through the community to ground their learning: a Wallace Stevens walk for an English class, a Frog Hollow walk led by local author Susan Campbell for a History class. Our strategic vision builds on these practices and deepens them, bringing more application and relevance to all KO courses.

Students Thrive

Local learning does not just sound impressive – it gets good results, too. A recent review of studies on place-based education found a raft of positive outcomes for students engaged in exploring the local community or natural surroundings within their classes. Students involved in place-based education earn higher test scores and grades than their matched peers outside those programs. They also stay in school longer and earn higher scholarship awards. Even more impressive may be the effects of place-based education on critical thinking: a study of 400 ninth- and twelfth-grade students in Florida found that students involved in place-based education outscored matched peers by a significant margin on the Cornell Critical Thinking Test. And the students in the local learning programs also registered much higher motivation to achieve and learn than their peers.         

These are powerful results. Not surprisingly, colleges and universities take notice when students engage deeply with the meaningful civic and research challenges posed by their local environments. For example, Greg Moyer, the Associate Director of Admissions for Dickinson College, notes that Lab Atlanta’s emphasis on local engagement translates very well to the college environment: “Lab Atlanta’s focus on community-focused education resonates well with the work that we do at the college level. We look for curious minds that care about inclusive, diverse communities…Empathy and engagement is critical.” Halfway across the country, students coming out of the Iowa Big program have also found that their experiences have been viewed very favorably by colleges: 97 percent of the program graduates who applied to college were admitted to their first-choice school. Obviously enough, the purpose of local involvement is to engage students and increase learning – not just to rack up college acceptances – but these results nonetheless speak to the power of their work.

Engaging the Entire KO Community

With these compelling stories and potent research findings – on critical thinking, grades, and motivation – in mind, we at KO are thrilled to bring the power of local learning to our students. We are also thrilled to collaborate in this initiative with our parents, alums, and others in our local community who look forward to partnering with us and forging connections between our coursework and their organization’s goals and needs. Please reach out to us if you are interested in working with our students and building a meaningful learning partnership. 

 

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