Early Education: The Downtown School in Manchester doubles enrollment, plans to expand
MANCHESTER — Prospective families toured The Downtown School in Manchester on Sunday to learn about becoming part of a progressive teaching institution for the 2016-2017 school year. The Oliver Rice House built in 1768 may present vintage structures inside and out, but it doesn't offer a traditional curriculum. The landscape for learning motto focuses on teaching children how to learn instead of what to learn.
The school more than doubled its enrollment after the inaugural year. Currently it teaches three-year-olds up to third grade with intention to reach eighth grade. From 10 students in 2014 to 21 in 2015, founder Alexa Manning foresees another increase between eight and 15 for the next school year.
As the number of children grows, so does the area in which they learn. Manning said she is strategizing expansion for the fall and the year after to make space for upcoming grades four through eight. Eventually, additional buildings will be equipped with art studio space, science labs, a gymnasium, and theatre/performing arts space. She noted that there is about four and a half acres of land to utilize.
As of right now, older students are learning about animals and their winter adaptations and will hike Mt. Equinox next week with a nature professional. Manning said this is different from a field trip because the experience is a part of the children's curriculum.
Every day all grades go outside, not just for a break, but to sled and use large green blocks to create and build what they need to as detailed by the teacher.
The Downtown School employs three teachers all with master's degrees and 10 years of experience.
"The children are so excited to be here every day. It's a safe environment and they're respected as people with having their voices honored," Brittany Denny, kindergarten and first grade teacher said.
Instead of reading chapters in a textbook and memorizing information for a test, Manning said the students develop skills by performing many minor tasks to achieve a larger goal. For example, one grade is learning about community and it starts with each classroom and grade being a community and working together and then stretching out to learn about how Manchester is formed with businesses and government, etc and then eventually the state as a whole.
"It's an interdisciplinary curriculum," Manning said. "They're writing their own books and then illustrating them. They develop math and research skills as part of a project."
Manning said the students have worked with the community Food Cupboard and while learning about the organization, they've interviewed the workers, helped make boxes and stock them and then stock the boxes on shelves and then wrote a book about their experience. While determining how many cans to put in a box, the students must solve a math problem and work together to do so.
Not all grades look to technology on a day-to-day basis as a public elementary school would, however third graders are learning cursive as well as typing skills. Second and third grade teacher Samantha Krasny said she makes sure her students understand that the classroom laptop is a tool to be used for education purposes and not for games.
"One boy wanted to learn how to sew a football but didn't know what it looked like or how to sew," Krasny said. "He located a photo online with the amount of seams it would need and figured it out that way."
Each teacher has the option to implement technological tools into their lesson plans, but they usually leave it out of the younger age groups curriculum unless necessary. Each grade also has a public blog that is worked on weekly. It displays written and typed projects from the children. The older groups will operate the blogs directly while other ages will produce the information for the teacher to post. The teachers want the students to know that their work is not only for the school and their families but for the entire community near and far.
This establishment engages students and teachers to work together to establish a community of unique, flexible and creative thinkers to create and answer complex questions, according to its website. It's founded on progressive education and experience-based educational philosophy.
The Downtown School is now accepting applications for three-year-olds through fourth grade and more information as well as each grade's blog can be found at thedowntownschool.org.
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