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Peck Elementary: Exploring Connections to the Community Through Expeditionary Learning

David Powell

When the Board of Education for Guilford County Schools in Greensboro, North Carolina completed its comprehensive facility master plan in 2019, it decided to address the schools with the most needs first. Clara J. Peck Elementary was one of those schools.

Located in Greensboro’s Glenwood neighborhood, Peck Elementary was established in 1929 to serve students in grades K-5. While the school has had a handful of modest additions and routine physical improvements over the years, it has generally suffered from a lack of substantive updates for most of its life. Other socio-economic circumstances compound the challenges with the facility itself, making it difficult to provide a meaningful learning experience in an equitable way.  Only 36.8% of incoming students demonstrate kindergarten readiness and approximately 78% of enrolled students are economically disadvantaged — nearly 60% higher than North Carolina’s state average.

Despite its challenges, Peck Elementary is, and always will be, an integral part of the Glenwood community. Clara J.Peck’s well-established presence, along with her dedicated, passionate staff and administrators, are instilled with a deep sense of neighborhood pride and a commitment to improving the lives of its students within their community and beyond.

This community connection was at the heart of Guilford County Schools’ decision to build a new school on the existing Peck Elementary site. But the innovative thinking didn’t stop there. Following the vision of Superintendent Dr. Sharon Contrearas and district leadership to equitably provide high quality, student-focused education, the Board of Education decided to take the project a step further and convert Peck Elementary into a K-8 Expeditionary Learning (EL) school.

In so doing, administrators committed to more than just a new building. They committed to a progressive educational environment capable of developing the whole child in ways that can profoundly impact their adolescence, community citizenship and ability to become lifelong learners.

The Expeditionary Learner

The Expeditionary Learning model is effectively an academic application of Outward Bound, a non-profit organization founded by educator Kurt Hahn, which values compassion, integrity, excellence, inclusion, diversity, strength of character and leadership. Like other progressive educational models, EL is rooted in a student-centered environment that promotes creativity, innovation, collaboration, critical thinking and problem-solving. But when compared to other 21st Century teaching methodologies, EL has several key differentiators.

One differentiator is the CREW. Unlike the traditional “homeroom,” EL students are grouped into a CREW: a tightly knit family of teachers and students that remains together every year until they leave school. The concept of CREW is very intentional in its objective to enable students and teachers to learn about one another on a deeper level, recognizing that everyone comes from different places with different outside circumstances and influences. Building these relationships is vital to success in their education and life.

It’s the heart of a child that affects learning. 

Like its maritime namesake, CREW members support and guide one another throughout their educational and social journeys, which is reflected in the students’ socio-emotional well-being as well as their self-esteem and character development.  CREW members work together to learn together.  It’s an apt metaphor for a group on a long voyage together—one in which everyone needs to pull at an oar, and no one sits watching.

Another differentiator is that EL students learn by conducting learning expeditions. These expeditions are at the core of the EL curriculum. They cover multiple disciplines, can comprise small or large groups, and take full semesters to complete. Most importantly, they don’t in any way revolve around classroom-based, one-subject-at-a-time instruction. Rather, they thrive on a pedagogy that relies on a highly interactive, collaborative and iterative process.

Augmenting project-based learning methods, EL’s intentions are focused beyond the classroom, touching meaningfully on the full spectrum of learning experiences, lessons, skills, understandings, disciplinary content and assessments. “Projects are long-term structures for learning academic content and skills, which require students to immediately put to use new content and skills in order to create something of value for an audience beyond the classroom.” So it follows that meaningful expeditions require meaningful processes conducted by passionate teachers.

Teachers from multiple disciplines carefully and collaboratively plan each expedition to arrive at a clear set of learning goals around a compelling topic. Often, these expeditions tackle current events, real-world problems and relevant issues. A successful learning expedition is one that takes required core content for multiple subjects and reshapes it to be connected, engaging and accessible to students.

This model promotes civic engagement, fosters a sense of community and inclusiveness, as well as emphasizes persistence, perseverance and sustained inquiry—which is what makes it so compelling and exciting. Children are naturally wired with the desire to learn. All they need is to be challenged and motivated… and given enough runway to take off! 

The Expeditionary “Classroom”

Like many of SHP’s progressive and innovative designs, EL classrooms need to be agile enough to facilitate multiple methods of classroom instruction: research and analysis, creativity and innovation, collaboration and competition, solitude and reflection, and communication and understanding. The importance of visual and physical connections to common learning environments cannot be understated. There’s also the need for environments that extend into the school’s physical site to facilitate impactful outdoor learning. And, especially for the expeditionary learner, the students’ environment must extend beyond the site and have a strong connection to the community.

For example, Peck Elementary has easy access to downtown Greensboro, North Carolina A&T State University, UNC Greensboro, the historic Magnolia House, recreation centers, museums, city parks and learning gardens. All offer abundant learning opportunities for the expeditionary learner.

Peck students will be able to conduct expeditions to any or all of these locations, study and experience them on a thoughtful level, then return to school to collaborate with fellow students and teachers about what they experienced that day. They will take time to respond to learning objectives collaboratively and execute projects through an iterative process. Ultimately, the students will be given the opportunity to present what they have learned back into the community from which they learned it—in essence, turning the community itself into the most meaningful classroom of all. This is at the core of Expeditionary Learning.

Peck in Progress EL classrooms cannot be a barrier to learning.

How do we, as architects, design a school in which the primary way curriculum is delivered is achieved by getting students out of the classroom?

This much we know: EL classrooms cannot be a barrier to learning. That means we get to have fun creating environments where kids love to go and environments that allow the EL program to flourish. Fortunately for us, all 21st Century, future-forward design strategies apply—and that’s what has made our involvement in the Peck project so rewarding.

While we have only recently completed the schematic design phase, we have landed on a few core concepts that we have begun presenting to the community for consideration. These include:

  • A discovery center at the heart of the school where students can check out traditional and digital media resources, engage in digital media, film and recording, or let their imaginations run wild in a makerspace/STEAM studio.
  • A visual art suite and outdoor art garden where student and community work can be displayed and outdoor learning can occur.
  • EC/AC spaces for exceptional children distributed throughout the school to reinforce inclusion and equality.
  • Studios for music, fitness, drama and dance.
  • Decompression spaces, aka “Chillville” to help students cope with periodic emotional challenges. Peck Expeditionary School will include visual art suite and outdoor art garden where student and community work can be displayed and outdoor learning can occur.
  • Distributed dining that brings meals to the students where they are, rather than in a traditional cafeteria.

When the new Peck Elementary is constructed, it will be built alongside the existing school on a slightly hilly site surrounded by mature trees. Since a connection to nature and outdoor learning is such a vital part of EL, we’ve preserved as much of the naturally wooded landscape as possible by building upwards rather than outwards.

Spread across three levels, the new Peck Elementary will have five learning communities that cluster similar grade levels together, allowing for co-teaching and age-appropriate collaboration. Each learning community will include EL commons and gallery spaces to encourage student project displays, iterative learning opportunities and community engagement.

SHP recently completed schematic design phase at Peck Elementary, a school in Guilford County, North Carolina that will embrace expeditionary learning when it opens in fall of 2024. Passive (e.g., floor-to-ceiling interior and exterior windows) and active (e.g., overhead operable partitions) connections between the commons and instructional spaces, as well as between exploratory and skills labs will allow for greater transparency and collaboration. Additionally, flexible zones with a variety of furniture and workspaces can be reconfigured in dozens of ways to accommodate various teaching, learning and presentation activities.

Like all progressive pedagogies, Expeditionary Learning is layered and nuanced, and resists being oversimplified. When implemented to its fullest potential, in concert with intentionally designed spaces, EL fosters a lifelong love of learning in the students that it reaches. After all of the tests and assignments are completed, students grow into individuals who collaborate with their peers and who actively seek to engage meaningfully with and in their communities—creating a lasting and positive impact for generations to come.

This link (click here) will take you to a virtual experience of the new Peck K-8 Expeditionary Learning School. We recommend viewing this on a cellular device to utilize the motion sensors on your phone and immerse yourself in a series of 360-degree views of the new building. Touch the circles in the views to jump from one view to the others.

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