It’s a busy morning in Mrs. Fuson’s kindergarten class at Hillside Elementary School. The young students are busy working on a self-directed task about the life cycle of a penguin. The students go to their tables and work independently in a group. They are busy cutting and pasting the sequence of the penguin’s life cycle. “I don’t have any glue,” says one student. “Be a problem solver – how can you solve this?” Mrs. Fuson is quick to redirect. This brief classroom encounter illustrates the educational philosophy at Hillside Elementary School. There is a need to get away from the traditional delivery of education, says Hillside Elementary School Principal Jared Pierce.
“Traditional education where students sit in their seats and receive instruction is actually the antithesis of what we want our students to do as adults,” Pierce says. Principal Pierce talks with enthusiasm and passion about instruction and building culture at this new school, located in the Hillside Village at Tesoro Viejo, Madera County’s newest master-planned community.
The school opened for the 2018-19 school year well ahead of any residents moving in. It serves students in transitional kindergarten through 8th grade with an on-site preschool. The school currently has just under 100 students and is prepared for the neighborhood students that will move into the community over the coming months. Pierce points to the small, inaugural student body as a contributor for building a strong culture of expectations and high performance. He also points to the instructional team that has created a culture of entrepreneurship and thinking outside the box to deliver a strong instructional program.
Hillside Elementary School is building a science-based curriculum instead of the traditional language arts-based curriculum. Pierce explains that he has challenged his instructional team to build a program that is aligned with the state standards, but starts with science first. “We start with science first and integrate writing and language arts,” Pierce says. “Then we build in social science by asking how does this science concept relate to history?”
This instructional strategy can be seen in Mrs. DeBernardi’s 6-8 grade combination class. The classroom is well organized and students are sitting in groups with their Chromebooks and science notebooks. It is an example of teaching the grade-level standards across three different grade levels at the same time. They are learning about the anatomy of a bee, as Mrs. DeBernardi provides instruction and prompts the students to analyze and reflect on the information.
Not only is it an example of blended learning, it is an example of science-based learning where students are using language arts and writing to illustrate mastery of the content. Principal Pierce is a true instructional leader – he talks with excitement and passion about what and how students are learning. He is proud that Hillside Elementary School is building a learning environment that is not defined by the traditional educational model and not confined by the walls of the classroom.
Because of the natural beauty of the Tesoro Viejo landscape, students spend a lot of time outside. In fact, it’s not uncommon for classes to take a walk and explore the nearby neighborhood parks and walking trails. “Our students’ learning is not confined by the classroom,” Pierce says. “I will often say to a group of students, ‘let’s go for a walk.’” Pierce says there is a lot of learning that can happen on these impromptu walks. He shares the example of taking the kindergarten students out for a walk. Because there is a lot of building going on in this new community, there are things that students need to be aware of, he says. “Instead of me constantly telling the students, ‘watch out for that,’ we talked about what a hazard is and how we need to avoid them,” Pierce says. “Very quickly, the students began working as a team and leading each other.”
This is just one example, says Pierce, of how we are teaching our students to be self-directed learners and to work as a team. It’s not just about rule-following, it’s about understanding the world around you and navigating it with foundational knowledge, Pierce says. “We focus how we want students to behave and let them take charge of their own behavior,” Pierce says. “We hold them accountable so that they are in tune with their environment and can manage themselves and the group – skills we want them to have as adults.”
Hillside Elementary School students have extra-curricular activities like music and sports – the cross-country team even takes advantage of the community’s extensive trail system to train. Hillside students are integrated in the Tesoro Viejo community and Principal Pierce understands the important role the schools plays in the building of this community. When it comes to building a culture of high student performance and contributing to a strong community, Hillside School and its staff are blazing the trail.