At Gatewood Elementary, serving students means looking inward (and heading outside)

A collaborative staff culture lets this MN school discover new ways of meeting student needs

March 10, 2022 • Marcus Penny

Photo by Bruce Silcox for Education Evolving.

Gatewood Elementary (Hopkins Public Schools) is in the spotlight. This MLK Day photo of kindergarteners embracing went viral after their principal, Dr. George Nolan, tweeted it. And local news outlets are taking turns featuring the suburban Minnesota school’s new outdoor immersion program.

The stories warm the heart. (Though images of outdoor winter learning may provoke a vicarious chill.) But we see more than human interest pieces. We see the fruits of the educator team’s labor—and evidence of the trust placed in them—to serve their evolving student population.

Similar to many Minnesota suburbs, Gatewood’s student demographics have changed over the last few years. School leaders knew that to better serve their students they needed to change their approach to learning.

That’s where outdoor immersion comes in.

Stoking curiosity by heading outside

The kindergarten teachers had been moving bits and pieces of class outside for years. They started with designated “Forest Fridays”. It was a chance for kids to literally get their hands dirty with learning. With Covid, it was safer and easier to social distance on their large, nature-filled campus. Even kindergarten distance learners took part in special outdoor learning days.

“Anything I thought I could do outside I would,” shared Katie Schmidt, one of Gatewood’s kindergarten teachers. Finally, Schmidt asked Dr. Nolan straight out, “Can I just teach outside next year?” He said yes without hesitation.

(Students aren’t outside all day—far from it. But as much learning as can safely and effectively take place outdoors does.)

Outdoor immersion stokes curiosity—helping students learn how to learn, build confidence, and develop social skills.

Schmidt once helped adopt a rigorous kindergarten curriculum for Gatewood. It offered little flexibility, they found, while failing to help students meet academic standards.

Schmidt said the curriculum now is more inquiry-based, “moving toward kids being active, letting them talk more than the adults, caring about their interests. Taking the academic pressure off while still achieving the standards.”

Gatewood is scheduled to become a full outdoor immersion school by fall 2023. A team of teachers at the school are currently designing that expansion.

Outdoor immersion, they’re finding, stokes curiosity—helping students learn how to learn, build confidence, and develop social skills.

These skills are crucial two years into a pandemic.

The SEL team in Gatewood’s green room, named for the Zones of Regulation (red being angry, yellow being agitated and upset, green being calm and steady). Photo by Bruce Silcox.

Meeting foundational needs by looking inward

“Younger students are experiencing their first normal year, and it’s not even that normal,” said Christopher King, longtime counselor at the school.

King shared how Gatewood was doubling down on social-emotional learning. The SEL team now has two full-time counselors (unheard of for an elementary school their size), three restorative culture specialists, and a few paraprofessionals rounding them out.

The team size enables many touchpoints for students: “Cocoa with the Counselors”, lunch groups with games, a staffed green (a sensory space to help students regulate back to a calm state where they can learn) open to all who need the space. And they’re able to integrate more with other staff—restorative culture specialists co-teach social-emotional curriculum with classroom teachers.

“It’s not just the number of people but the talent they have,” shared King, crediting colleagues he admires for all their team is able to do for kids. These themes of peer trust, collaboration, and shared leadership are present across Gatewood.

Katie Schimdt wishes more teachers and staff could enjoy the same autonomy to try new ways of serving students. “There’s so much teacher burnout. People are so stressed. My team—we’re not stressed. We’re rejuvenated.”

With funding from the Leon Lowenstein Foundation, Education Evolving is partnering with Gatewood this and next school year. We’ll share more as they continue their student-centered journey.