COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — On a recent stroll through the halls of King Elementary, Tricia Bentley proudly smiled as she heard sounds of learning behind each door she passed.
“You walk into any of these classrooms and you’re going to see students working together, learning together, and relying on each other,” said Bentley, who spent a combined 25 years as a teacher and Principal at King. “You can tell they are happy to be here.”
That happiness was evident when Bentley opened the door to a music room filled with smiling students playing instruments and singing in unison.
“Welcome, welcome everyone, we are glad that you are here,” they sang while clapping and walking in a circle.
None of the rooms featured a traditional setting of a teacher standing and speaking in front of students seated in desks. Instead, the rooms were filled with students huddled together in groups and working on various projects. Teachers moved around, challenging groups with questions about their work and offering guidance that sparked more thoughtful discussion among the students.
The collaborative environment is noticeable throughout the project-based learning school, which is K-5 and located in the southern part of Colorado Springs. Bentley, in her first year as the Assistant Director for Elementary Learning with Widefield School District 3, visits King often and always leaves with renewed inspiration after seeing students engage in real-world projects and thrive as curious learners.
“I wish everybody could walk the halls at King Elementary to see the type of learning that goes on here,” Bentley said. “Students don’t just come to school to take a test. They come to school to learn, to collaborate with a team, and to apply what they’re learning to something they relate to. There’s not a better feeling than knowing that you are meeting the needs of all of your learners.”
King is in its fourth year as a partner with Summit Learning, a research-based approach to education that prepares students for life beyond the classroom. Summit Learning, an offering of educator-led nonprofit Gradient Learning, is used in grades 4-5 at King and features a robust mentoring program that has elevated the personal relationships between students and teachers.
“What’s great about mentoring is that it’s a fun way for your teacher to know what’s going on in your life,” said Myles, a fifth-grade student who wants to be an engineer when he grows up. “I feel like my mentor really pushes me to be successful in school. She’s always there for me.”
Abigail, also a fifth-grader, likes that her weekly one-on-one mentoring sessions allow her opportunities to share personal feelings that otherwise wouldn’t be discussed.
“It’s just nice to have someone to talk to about your day,” Abigail said. “Sometimes you can get frustrated, but you don’t really have any time to share that. But with mentoring, you can tell them if you’re having a little bit of trouble with anything and they will help you.”
Principal Sarah Arellano said the disruptions in education caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have made creating meaningful relationships even more of a priority for King’s community.
“If people didn’t think mentoring was important before, they’re seeing now why it’s so important that students have a person they can connect with, that they feel safe with, and know that they have a voice with,” Arellano said. “Growing students doesn’t have to be hard. It just takes a level of commitment.”
Arellano’s staff is dedicated to providing strong social-emotional support for students, perhaps none more so than fifth-grade teacher Ashlie Steel. As a child growing up in a military family, Steel changed schools often and sometimes felt ignored when joining a class mid-year.
“I had a lot of teachers that just had me sit at the back of the classroom while other students were working on their projects,” Steel said. “I never wanted that to happen to another student, so I think that’s what really drove me into teaching.”
Steel is eager to bring out the best in all of her students—including several from military families that move in and out of Colorado Springs, which has five military institutions in the area.
“I want to move mountains for kids like me who don’t necessarily have the traditional home life,” Steel said. “I want to show them that I believe in you, and that you all have a place here.”
Steel credits the consistent mentoring routine with quickly breaking down social-emotional barriers and for giving her a new perspective on how to approach each student.
“If they’re having a hard day, you’re able to tell and you can pull them aside,” Steel said. “You can help them get it off their chest so they don’t have to worry about it anymore.”
After not receiving the type of support she needed as a student, Steel is determined to prevent anybody from feeling disconnected from their peers and teachers.
“You bet that I’m going to spend time getting to know every single one of my students,” she said. “They’re all going to know that I care deeply about each and every one of them.”
Watch this video to learn more about King Elementary.