An independent day school serving grades K-12 | St. Paul, MN

Curriculum & Community

Young children have a natural love of learning and exploration. The Lower School curriculum builds on those natural inclinations by introducing children to the fundamentals of intellectual inquiry within a safe, nurturing community characterized by close attention to each student. As a result, Lower School students from Kindergarten through Grade 5 develop exceptional academic skills in addition to the social/emotional strengths that will serve them as they move up to the Middle School: excellent communication and public speaking skills; a strong work ethic and a sense of responsibility to the community; and a sense of pride in themselves and their school.  Students also develop a deep affection and respect for their teachers and peers, which is evident in the sense of community and warmth that permeates the entire Lower School.

The Lower School experience is built on five foundational elements: a low student-teacher ratio; the team-teaching model, with two master teachers in every homeroom; the use of differentiation; the rotating six-day schedule; and the TOOLBOX social/emotional program. Twice-weekly all-school assemblies and "Mini" elective courses are also important elements of the Lower School community.

Class Sizes

Student/teacher ratios are purposefully kept very small to ensure that each child gets the attention and guidance they need. Kindergarten classrooms have an average of under 10 students per teacher; an average Kindergarten homeroom has 16-18 students with two homeroom teachers. The homeroom cohort will often be split into smaller groups of 8-9 either within the homeroom or for the specialist classes, with half the group in art and the other half in science, for example. Beyond the Kindergarten year, Lower School homerooms average 13-15 students per teacher.

Co-Teaching

In the co-teaching model, each grade-level homeroom is led by two teachers whose academic credentials are matched by a love of teaching and a deep understanding of the emotional needs of young children. Having two teachers in every homeroom means that students receive a great deal of individualized attention, and teachers have the benefit of a close colleague with whom to collaborate on planning, curriculum, and student development and evaluation.

Differentiation

Differentiation is the practice of meeting students' individual needs through ongoing assessment and flexible groupings. In the Lower School, differentiation is used carefully with the understanding that each student's quantitative, reading, and writing abilities are constantly evolving.  Throughout the course of the year, homeroom teachers and specialist teachers make continual adjustments to individual and group instruction based on what they observe in each child.

Six-Day Schedule

The Lower School follows a six-day schedule in which a student's academic day alternates between the homeroom, the six specialist classes, and time for play and community gatherings. The rotating six-day schedule allows for optimum emphasis on multidisciplinary skill-building in the three homeroom disciplines (math, language arts, and social studies), as well as in the six specialist classes (science, Spanish, art, music, physical education, and library time). A sample Lower School schedule is below.

TOOLBOX

We utilize the TOOLBOX Social Emotional Learning Curriculum to help children regulate themselves, build resilience, and restore relationships within the context of our learning community. Every Lower School faculty and staff member is trained in the TOOLBOX curriculum, which offers a common language to maximize understanding between adults and children and is based on the principle that each person has an innate capacity to seek and find solutions to regulate their own behavior, to practice empathy, kindness, and compassion and to become more and more resourceful, resilient, and confident in so doing. The TOOLBOX is based on these 12 tools:

  • Breathing Tool: I calm myself and check-in.

  • Quiet/Safe Place Tool: I remember my quiet/safe place.

  • Listening Tool: I listen with my ears, eyes, and heart.

  • Empathy Tool: I care for others. I care for myself.

  • Personal Space Tool: I have a right to my space and so do you.

  • Using Our Words Tool: I use the “right” words in the “right” way.

  • Garbage Can Tool: I let the little things go.

  • Taking Time Tool: I take time-in and time-away.

  • Please & Thank You Tool: I treat others with kindness and appreciation.

  • Apology & Forgiveness Tool: I admit my mistakes and work to forgive yours.

  • Patience Tool: I am strong enough to wait.

  • Courage Tool: I have the courage to do the “right” thing.

Assembly

All-school assemblies take place in the Goodrich Campus auditorium at the beginning and end of each week, on Monday and Friday mornings. Assemblies bring together all Lower School students, faculty, staff, and often parents for school updates and announcements. Students sing, perform, and celebrate accomplishments as a group. Assemblies are led by students in Grade 5; as a culmination of their Lower School experience, each Grade 5 student leads an assembly on his or her own. Each student is mentored by a Grade 5 teacher to prepare for his or her "emcee day," and these are much-anticipated community events and rites of passage for Lower School students.

Minis

Students in Grades 3-5 take part in Minis, a series of six-week electives or mini-courses taught by Lower School faculty members. Minis offer students an opportunity to learn new skills outside the classroom and collaborate with different students and adults in the community. Minis offered in recent years include basic coding, stop-motion animation, laser cut printmaking, basketball, drums around the world, and mindfulness.  A Spanish mini is also offered for students in Grades 3-5 who are new to SPA and need extra time with the Spanish faculty to work on foundational Spanish language skills.

Technology

SPA takes a holistic approach to technology in the Lower School. Rather than offering instruction in how to use computers or devices--skills many children have already mastered by Kindergarten--we have developed a broad curricular initiative focused on technology, creativity, and innovation. The initiative involves three strands of skill development: computers and other devices as learning tools; computer science and engineering skills; and Maker education. Together, these three strands give students the opportunity to explore new ways of thinking that can also be applied to the academic subjects they study in their homerooms and with the specialists.

Technology as a learning tool: Technology is integrated into academic subject areas and includes an emphasis on creativity and innovation. Students in grades K-2 share classroom iPads, and students in grades 3-5 are assigned individual iPads for school use. There are also mobile labs of laptops which students may use as needed to achieve particular learning objectives or enhance specific projects. Students use technology to collaborate with peers, learn digital citizenship, and create subject-related content.

Computer Science, Engineering, and Maker Education: Students in every grade have at least one unit each year in their science classes in which they explore computer science, robotics and/or engineering at a developmentally-appropriate level. This initiative involves three strands of skill development: computers and devices as learning tools; computer science and engineering skills; and Maker education, in which students utilize the Lower School's Makerspace for design, construction, and special projects. Together, these three strands give students the opportunity to explore new ways of thinking that can also be applied to the academic subjects they study in their homeroom and with the specialists.

Life in the Lower School

The Lower School's curriculum and community was the focus of the summer 2017 issue of  SPA Magazine.

LOOKING BACK: THREE "LIFERS" REMEMBER THE LOWER SCHOOL