Steins Pillar Elementary invites students to participate in quests and learn outside the classroom and in the community

 - Art is a daily part of the education routine at Steins PIllar Elementary.

Talk to Principal Jim Bates about the new Steins Pillar Elementary School, and you are bound to hear some recurring themes.

Adventure, quests, art and technology come up often. So do concepts like modern educational models, studying and solving real-world problems, and taking learning outdoors and into the community.

The new magnet school, which opened this fall in the north building of the former Crooked River Elementary facility, is in part a response to a potential overcrowding issue. Bates, Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson and other educators began discussing the issue more than a year ago. But as they considered how to deal with a growing elementary student population, they decided to offer something different in the process.

"One of the things I appreciate about Dr. Johnson is if there is a need, never miss an opportunity to do something cool," Bates said. "That's what drove the heartbeat of saying, 'Let's open a magnet school.'"

Work on the new school began behind the scenes before last school year concluded. Bates and other educators put together a Steins Pillar teaching team and reached out to Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs, a curriculum developer who is an expert in the field on an international level.

"She said she would be thrilled to work with us," Bates recalls.

Project leaders studied "Bold Moves," a book co-authored by Jacobs as they developed the curriculum for the new school

"She used three terms in her book – antiquated, classic and modern," Bates explained. "She is a fan of keeping classic components of education and is also a proponent for moving toward modern approaches, which is what we tried to embody at Steins Pillar Elementary with constructing a modern learner through adventure learning, art and technology."

Classic elements of education include the traditional class time, lunch and recess with a playground and standard blacktop activities, Bates said. Modern elements feature such ideas as quest time, or the expansion of storylines. The local elementary schools have utilized storyline curriculums for the past few years, but at Stein Pillar, they will spend at least twice as much time on them.

Kindergarteners will study a New Neighbors storyline that features Pete the Cat. First and second graders will expand on that theme with the Pete's Rocking Community storyline. Rounding out the list is the News in our Community storyline, which third and fourth graders will tackle.

"We are studying real-world problems and looking for solutions," Bates said.

Another way the curriculum differs is its emphasis on art. Students have art for 30 minutes each day during their specials, which Bates says directly connects to their quest work.

The new curriculum and educational offerings all tie into an adventure learning theme. And that learning is not confined to the classrooms. "We'll be in the classroom, we'll be outside, and we'll be around town, especially when our COVID guidelines allow that," Bates said.

He invites people who want to understand adventure learning to look at a unique feature on the school's playground.

"We call it Adventure Park," he said. "There are pathways, hills, grass, rocks to climb on and a tremendous amount of space for kids to explore. We will have sands pits, pea gravel pits and outdoor classroom spaces where you can go out and sit in half-circles."

When it came time to sign up students for the new school, educators initially opened the registration process to all Crook County families. From March until May, people could go online and register for the school.

Once school leaders had a list of interested families, they looked at the number of classrooms available and established a target class size. They were able to find room for all the 2-4 grade students but had to utilize a lottery system to determine which kindergarten and first grade students made the cut.

The rest of the families would have stayed on a waiting list, but the COVID pandemic prompted some of the previously registered families to choose the school district's online or homeschool program.

"We were able to place every student on our waiting list in the kinder and first grade classes," Bates said.

As the summer progressed, the district utilized a tight budget to renovate the school building, building the playground and install a new student drop-off and pick-up loop. Much of this work was made possible by multiple partnerships and donations.

"I have lost count of the number of times our city partners and our local business partners have given generously of themselves to be able to make something happen," Bates said. "And the drop-off loop is absolutely an award-winning example of that."

He explained that the city sold them asphalt from recent street grindings and donated time, engineering and mobilization of materials and even identified a vendor they utilize to donate paint for the striping.

"It has been working tremendously well," Bates said of the new loop.

Three weeks in, the new school has been a hit. Students, their parents and Facebook posts to the school's page have all provided school leaders a positive response.

"The feedback we have gotten so far is that the kids are loving being here," Bates said.

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