February 1, 2019 Blog

Turning elementary education outside in

Approaching McAuliffe Elementary School in Logan Square, it’s hard to miss the soaring glass entrance welcoming visitors. The school’s motto is “Reach for the Stars” – and the skylights in the atrium reinforce that idea for the students.  It’s an homage to the school’s namesake, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, the “first teacher in space,” who died tragically in the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986.

As another nod to McAuliffe, the school’s curriculum, crafted with the help of Principal Ryan Belville, focuses on environmental education and sustainability. See, the skylights in McAuliffe’s atrium not only inspire, but provide extra sunlight, acting as a greenhouse for rows of planters bursting with healthy, green branches. Outside, the school has a learning garden where students care for plants along with chickens and several bee hives.

The learning garden is just one aspect of the educational experience that Ryan provides his students. The school has hydroponic units and updated art studios, and this past summer, incoming kindergarteners observed tadpoles and built with mortar as part of the Ready, Set, STEM camp. These activities all support Ryan’s mission of “ensuring an equal education for every single (student) regardless of their background.”

Ryan also highlighted the role of community partnerships and grants in making environmental education a reality for his students. McAuliffe is a recipient of the 21st Century Learning Centers grant, which provides $75,000 per year to fund after-school programming. The school also partners with Big Green and Seven Generations Ahead, two nonprofits that teach students how to grow healthy foods and develop ecologically sustainable habits.

“There are so many organizations that are looking to reach out and do good things in the city,” Ryan pointed out, but securing grants and finding community partners takes a lot of work. He said the key is “being accessible and responsible.”

Likewise, Ryan reaches out to learn about how other schools promote STEAM – science, technology, engineering, arts and math – education. Last year, he and a group of students toured Lane Technical High School’s aquaponics systems and Loyola University’s Institute of Environmental Sustainability. It’s a sneak-peak into where McAuliffe students may very well be in 15 to 20 years, Ryan said. Giving kids a taste of the opportunities in STEAM fields inspired Ryan to emphasize science minutes – “minutes of instruction around science” – even when testing priorities lie so heavily in reading and math.

“We’re really proud of the work we’ve done around environmental education and sustainability and students’ sense of conservation,” Ryan said. It’s an area where he’d like to continue to see growth, as “sustainability initiatives can have a huge impact not only on individual well-being and health, but they can repair some of the harm and damage that we’ve done (to our planet).”

When Ryan takes a step back and looks at the environmental education program at McAuliffe, he sees students “becoming engaged, becoming critical thinkers, being active citizens.” They’re reaching beyond their school’s walls to bring the outside in.