During the last week of school, Laguna Elementary students took part in organized activities at recess led by a Boys & Girls Club coach, pre-school students signed a song during their graduation ceremony, and fifth-graders played board games they’d created for math class in the courtyard.
Community partnerships, a focus on early learning and an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics have helped make Laguna Elementary School a success, said Dr. Kathleen Root, retiring principal of the Scottsdale school recently awarded the A+ School of Excellence Award for the fourth time from the Arizona Educational Foundation.
“There’s something to be said for what it takes to keep that excellence in place,” said Bobbie O’Boyle, executive director of Arizona Educational Foundation.
Video by Brooke Razo/AZEdNews: Laguna Elementary School – A+ School of Excellence
Root said the school’s culture is key, because “The culture of a school is the foundation of learning for everybody.”
“When you have a culture where you appreciate and value small and large people, where you have inclusivity for people whether it’s a senior citizen or a parent volunteer, you’re going to have everyone who’s connected to that school who is willing to put into that school and walks away feeling that they are a contributor,” Root said.
Laguna Elementary’s partnerships with community organizations directly impact students’ learning.
“Laguna has tremendous community support including a partnership with a Boys & Girls Club that is physically located right next door to the school, and the Via Linda Senior Center is right there as well,” O’Boyle said.
Two intramural coaches from the Boys & Girls Club plan, coordinate and monitor different games and activities on the playground during recess, giving students structured activities that let them develop sportsmanship, social skills and physical fitness, said Assistant Principal Brooke Williams, who will be leading the school next year.
“It has lowered our incidences of discipline referrals on the playground significantly,” Williams said.
That day during recess, a Boys & Girls Club coach led students in a game where one person was chosen as a secret leader and the rest of the students in the circle had to copy their motions. Another student observed group and had three guesses to determine who the leader was.
AZEdNews Podcast by Brooke Razo: How community partnerships, early learning and STEM make Laguna Elementary an A+ School of Excellence
The partnership with the Via Linda Senior Center provides 1-on-1 after-school tutoring for students twice a week, Root said. The tutors from the senior center work closely with the students’ classroom teachers to provide assistance in the specific areas each student needs help with.
“It was very apparent that a lot of the seniors are looking for something to do, and they felt a passion for teaching or a passion for working with young children and just wanted to continue to help,” Root said. “It’s been this wonderful, absolutely wonderful, relationship that we’ve developed over the years.”
Focus on early education
While just 6 percent of Laguna students receive free- or reduced-price lunch, the school’s enrollment has declined from 600 students five years ago to 400 students today.
That declining enrollment can be attributed to students moving on to middle school and several charter schools moving into the neighborhood and increasing school choice.
To turn that around, Laguna is working to increase its enrollment in its early learning programs for two- and three-year olds and its preschool for four-year olds, because many students stay at the school once they start there.
“One of the highlights we have here at Laguna is early learning,” Root said.
In an early-learning classroom of two-year-olds, students were working on puzzles together, using tools to put items in a board, sorting items, asking questions, drawing, talking about their artworks.
“We teach them right then and there, how through play we can be a good friend,” Root said.
In another classroom, students showed which numbers were the least and the greatest and talked about their lemonade stand, how much a cup of lemonade cost and how many cups they had sold before heading out to recess.
“We know that at graduation at four (years old), they will be ready for kindergarten, and we find that we can do a lot more with them academically and socially when they are developmentally ready and they have those skill sets in place,” Root said.
During preschool graduation, the students dressed in their blue caps and gowns signed the song “What a Wonderful World,” while their families proudly watched them perform.
Emphasis on STEAM
The school’s emphasis on science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics is another way the school is trying to meet the needs of the community and increase enrollment.
Stefanie Shamy, the gifted teacher at Laguna, developed a project to get kids to show what they’re interested in, what they think about and how they want to make a difference in the world.
“So many kids have a passion and so often at school kids don’t have an opportunity to actually explore their passion,” Shamy said. “This is not telling them what to learn. It’s what do you want to learn? Then how are we going to find out more about it as far as researching, reading and writing about it. Then applying that with technology to present their learning as well.”
Shamy said students at the school also have access to a MakerSpace Lab where students can use new and recycled items and technology to make parts of their project.
For his project, Sanjit, a fifth-grader, created a working piano from wood, metal and test tubes filled with water.
“Since my passion project is playing the piano, I made my piano and I know how to play one song on it,” Sanjit said as he played “Happy Birthday to You” on his piano. “I looked up a video of making a toy piano and they used metal pipes and these test tubes.”
Sanjit said he measured where the test tubes, keys and hammers should be before he started building his piano, which “took at least two weeks.”
“I researched what a piano is and how to make it and the test tubes represent the strings that make the sound,” Sanjit said. “Since the test tubes are filled with different amounts of water, each can make a different sound. The more water in the test tube, the deeper the sound.”
Then Sanjit said he used rubber bands on the wooden keys to make the metal hit the test tubes, but if the key is pushed down too hard it can break the rubber band “so you have to be careful.”
Another student, Teagan, made swimming goggles that after helping you see in water can automatically flip into a sunshade for when you’re out of the water. Other students who are coders created videogames, while Josh wrote a play, assigned parts and directed the performance, Shamy said.
“It’s so amazing how passionate these kids are about their passions, and the other kids want to learn about it to and it gets them inspired,” Shamy said. “It helps us to focus their learning a little bit.”
“When you give a child an opportunity to demonstrate what they know in their way – it could be a play, it could be a project – it shows that choices in learning are really important,” Root said.
The school has a science lab that received an award from Intel in 2008 in recognition of its science education. The lab is staffed with an employee who helps maintain and sets up all labs for students as well as supports teachers in their instruction.
“Sciences have always been something that our parent community has really supported quite a bit,” Root said. “But also by the staff, they love to teach through science from pre-kindergarten and our special education early intervention services all the way up to fifth grade go to the science lab on a weekly basis for science instruction and hands-on exploration.”
In the school courtyard, fifth-graders were asking questions and taking turns playing games they had built and made up rules for as part of a class math project.
“We tried to make a basketball one, but it was too hard, so we made a bunch of holes instead and then it just worked better,” one student said about the game he and his group created, while a boy tried to get a ball in a hole.
One girl said her group came up with an arcade game like skee ball where you try to get points and they added a wheel to spin to it.
Another girl in the group said it’s easier to play that skee ball because when you spin the wheel and it land on a math problem you figure it out in your head, write it down on scrap paper and if you get it right you get three tickets and get it into the whole then you get two more tickets and you can cash them in for prizes.
These games are an example of high rigor, because students have to apply what they know and come up with a creative project, Root said.
“Projects are very rich in curriculum and student learning in terms of skills,” Root said.
Another focus for the K-5 students is social-emotional learning and character building through daily activities and lessons teachers use in their classrooms.
“We brought in a new program this year, Sanford Harmony program through Arizona State University, and it really focuses on teaching kids some of those underlying rules and things like empathy and conflict resolution,” Williams said.
Fewer students are coming to school with those skills, so they need to be taught how to interact with each other, be kind, what to do when they hurt someone’s feelings, how to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, Williams said.
“Teaching them those skills and giving them the resources that they need for interacting and being good members of society is important,” Williams said.
Slideshow by Lisa Irish/AZEdNews: What makes Laguna Elementary a four-time A+ School of Excellence