When Executive Director Lynn Peterson walks around Cologne Academy in Minnesota, she sees kids who know why they’re at school… and it’s not just because mom or dad dropped them off.
“We’ve made it more intentional that ‘your job is to come here and learn,’” Peterson said. “’Your parents have their jobs to do, learning is your work.’”
What Peterson realizes is that learning is not just transformative for kids, it’s like a full-time job! At Cologne Academy, treating learning as a job has created an amazing atmosphere of purposefulness. Students take ownership of education and staff commit to helping each child find success and fun.
Take learning how to read, for example.
“As wonderful and easy as it would be for us to just teach it one time and be done, the real thing is we have to wait until they’re ready, then we have to be there,” said Peterson.
“We have a ton of teachers that work with our littles on that instruction, because you never really know when they’re going to get it,” said Peterson. “The best way to be ready is to have staff ready, make sure they understand the progression of literacy, and acknowledge that wherever students are is exactly where they should be, and embracing that with each kid.”
Some kindergarteners and first graders at the K-8 charter school may be watching a story’s characters develop. Others could be identifying plots in a book. But each kid knows what his or her job is.
“They know they’re working toward more than, ‘my mom just dropped me off at school,’” said Peterson. “They have purpose.”
Of course, in every learning environment, there will be moments when the job of learning becomes tough or frustrating. That’s where the importance of individual support and attention comes in.
“Work can be hard, so we really talk about how every child needs success every day, and we accomplish that through differentiated instruction,” said Peterson. “We need learning to be at the “Goldilocks level,” right? Not too easy, not too hard, but a progressive upward slope. So we have to provide that “just right” environment.”
One way Cologne Academy strives for a “just right” environment is via its Core Knowledge curriculum, which provides students a sequence of curated knowledge, much of it transmitted through oral telling and experience.
Melissa Mase, the elementary school’s assistant principal, acknowledges that the Core Knowledge curriculum automatically makes the school go above and beyond state standards. But Cologne Academy’s high standards leave plenty of room for personalization. After all, “just right” looks different for each student.
“We definitely are transparent in that all of our learners come at their own individual spot, and we set goals with each learner,” said Peterson. “We’re really looking at growth.”
Mase joked, “Wouldn’t it be great if all learners were exactly the same? If everyone was just solidly average in all domains, emotionally, socially, academically, all those pieces?”
She quickly added, “But the truth is, they aren’t. They have highs and lows in all these different domains. You have a grand mixture. What we want to provide [each year] is one year’s growth. That’s a buzz word, however, there’s ways that we can measure that objectively and subjectively.”
Parents and their children face choices every day, Peterson said, from ice-cream flavors to more cosmic decisions. Out of all of those decisions, “education is one of the most important choices that you make for your child,” she said. I couldn’t agree more.
Treating learning as a job and honoring the different strengths and speeds kids bring into school is a wonderful example of how to help kids find happiness. I am inspired by Cologne Academy’s commitment to preparing a “workplace” that is “just right” for every student!
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