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Preparing Students For Extraordinary Challenges at The College School in Webster Groves

All photos courtesy The College School.

by Don Corrigan

Most people agree we live in critical times and young people must be prepared for extraordinary challenges. Educators at The College School in Webster Groves say they are preparing students for those challenges – and they are putting money where it counts to make that preparation happen.

The school has invested several million dollars in a 28-acre LaBarque Campus in Pacific, Missouri. The project includes the 3,000-square-foot Jan Phillips Learning Center, which contains classroom, workshop, outdoor and community spaces. The project reflects concern for the environment, sustainability and entrepreneurship.

On a campus hike to the learning center, named in honor of the former school head, Jan Phillips, it’s hard not to detour to an outside area called “River City.” This small city has been built by students and has the feel of an elaborate model train board or the village from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

“At our Webster Campus, students will apply their math concepts to real-life situations, such as designing scale representations of homes and businesses for their River City,” said Jill Pampel, educator and director of admissions. “Then they come to the LaBarque Campus and build what they have designed in their classes.”

River City shows real innovation for third-grade level students. The homes in the town are built to green standards with power generated by roof solar panels. Businesses have nice garden roofs to reduce heat generated on conventional, shingled spaces.

“In language arts, students write research papers, learn about urban planning and economic literacy, and apply that knowledge here at LaBarque as they build River City,” said Pampel. “We encourage them to reflect on their city building experience with journal writing that we display the at school.”

Pampel said it’s important to emphasize that the work at LaBarque does not represent a separate school curriculum. It’s a logical extension of school studies, providing novel, yet practical, educational explorations.

That sort of study integration goes on at all grade levels. For example, in first grade students explore the theme, “Where Does our Food Come From?”  The program of study essentially uses food as a tool to do interdisciplinary work in math, science and language arts.

On the Webster Groves Campus, students learn how to identify a maple tree, use science to learn what the right conditions need to be for the tree to produce sap. Then they use language arts to write and reflect.

At the sprawling LaBarque Campus, students find the proper trees in wooded areas, drill the tree holes, then carry the sap to the Sugar Shack on site to boil it down. When they return to campus, they will use a kitchen space to test out their final product – maple syrup!

Different Kind Of Campus

“LaBarque Creek just offers a lot of biodiversity for our studies,” said John McElwain, school director for sustainability. “There are seven unique ‘eco-niches,’ including upland forests, wetlands, prairies, and glades.”

In addition, two pristine streams come together on the site. LaBarque Creek has greater fish diversity than any other stream in the Meramec River watershed, with 53 species, compared to an average of 10 for other streams. The campus features 93 species of native trees and shrubs.

“Our school has always been known for getting outside and taking our curriculum to local neighborhoods, state parks, and across the country,” said McElwain. “Now, with our LaBarque Campus, just 30 minutes from our Webster Groves Campus, we have a permanent outdoor headquarters for learning beyond the classroom.”

The College School’s LaBarque Campus includes six rain gardens, an orchard, a butterfly garden and Monarch butterfly way station, a creek play area, a fairy cave, a pine tree climbing area, an area for architectural digs, a rock climbing and rappelling area.

Students of all ages get to experience an adventure education wonderland as part of their learning. First graders tap maple trees on the property, then make syrup from the sap. Second graders analyze the health of the streams through their invertebrate study. As part of their “River City” project, third graders build a model community.

At The Learning Center

After touring the students’ “River City,” the barn work area, hiking trails and a porch for viewing sky activity, a visitor is invited to watch the students do academic work in the Learning Center. There’s a brisk, cool wind blowing through open windows and students are sprawled near a stone fireplace.

“Even before there was a pandemic, this classroom has always been a great place for natural ventilation and for students to do social distancing,” said Pampel. “We don’t have to retrofit anything for a safe classroom environment.

“We’re always prepared to do a lot outdoors and the students know how to dress for it,” added Pampel. “We kind of have a motto here: ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, there are only poor choices in what clothing we decide on for being out in the weather.”

The Learning Center is a great place to retreat after an outdoor exploration. Students share their discoveries. In second grade, students have a study theme on water and they learn about the biodiversity of creeks. They hike the waterways to see how natural and man-made events impact the natural world.

At the Learning Center, they can share findings from physically studying the creeks. Buses can return them to the Webster Groves Campus to analyze information and create their reports. As members of Missouri’s Department of Conservation Stream Team, students monitor the invertebrate population in LaBarque’s creeks.

The Learning Center is designed to achieve net-zero energy, water, and waste in pursuit of living building status. “Green” features include rainwater capture and reuse, composting toilets, daylight use, natural ventilation, renewable energy, an aqueduct, a stream feature wall, stained glass storytelling panels and a chimney built with the geology of the area.

A base of operations for the LaBarque Campus, the Learning Center also is a place to connect with the larger St. Louis community. It hosts conferences and workshops on experiential learning for area teachers. It’s also a site for students from other local schools to visit and to experience.

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