Just before lunchtime on a soggy Tuesday, four classes of kindergarten through second graders settled around a giant classroom for indoor recess.
One group played with Legos. Another stacked wooden blocks into fortresses. Some students worked at laptops. A handful of girls huddled over a board game.
It was impossible for a visitor to determine which students belonged to which of the four classes.
That’s by design, said Principal Donna Kacmarski. At Crossroads Elementary School on Marine Corps Base Quantico, children belong to the neighborhood—the open space that at first glance looks like scattered desks and tables and shelves stacked with educational toys.
But look closer and you’ll see four distinct learning studios—or classrooms—set like spokes on a wheel from a center hub.
Folding walls between each studio were open on this day, just as they almost always are, said teacher Sara Rohde, who teaches a multiage class of first and second graders.
Opened a year ago from three smaller schools, this so-called 21st century school is among the newest in the Department of Defense Education Activity and serves about 700 children of active-duty service members who live on base.
Crossroads Elementary, the first of its kind in DoDEA, was designed with key principals of 21st century learning in mind: critical thinking and problem solving; agility and adaptability; initiative, effective communication, curiosity and collaboration.
“Collaboration is a very big word for everyone,” Kacmarski said.
The school is made up of 10 neighborhoods, each similar in design and made up of three to four classes plus a teacher collaboration room where educators keep their desks.
While students spend time in their respective studios with their assigned teacher, they often begin the day together, in the hub.
“We are building communities,” Kacmarski said.
Children benefit from having three or four teachers to call on rather than just one, said Assistant Principal Tracey Fairfax. “They know there are a lot of people involved in their education.”
They may do their math lessons with one teacher and reading with another. A pair of educators may team up to co-teach.
The set-up gets kids moving more, Fairfax said, just as they were on this day.
“One thing college professors say is that many students don’t know how to be a team member,” she said.
This concept demands it.
The notion of open classrooms is not new. The movement emerged in Great Britain after World War II; by the late 1960s, it had made its way across the Atlantic, according to Education Next, an education policy journal.
It was short-lived, all but disappearing within a decade, according to the journal.
Though Crossroads is the first full-fledged 21st Century school in the DoDEA, “we have many newer buildings that incorporate varying degrees of the 21C education specifications,” Gerald J. David, Chief, of the DoDEA Logistics Division, said in an email statement. “Our goal is to eventually have all 21C schools, but that will be achieved through modification of existing facilities over time or routine replacement of aging facilities.”
Lessons learned four decades ago are being used to ensure success at Crossroads, Kacmarski said.
“The difference is there is so much professional development” for today’s educators, she said.
Crossroads Elementary broke ground in April 2013—two years before the school opened.
“That’s when we started professional development,” the principal said, training teachers and staff on what to expect and how to make it work.
At Crossroads, learning studios can be closed off. Every neighborhood has a one-to-one room for those occasions when a student or small group needs individualized attention.
Contrary to some fears, students have not been distracted by what’s going on in other areas of the room, said Rohde, the teacher who is part of a multiage neighborhood of kindergarten through second graders.
Teachers share materials. Students collaborate on projects: watching caterpillars spin into chrysalises and hatch into butterflies. Or putting on a play after a unit on rainforests.
“You hear noise, but it’s productive noise,” Rohde said. “It’s the sound of kids collaborating, teachers collaborating.”
One year in, the concept is still constantly evaluated. Tweaks are made as necessary, Kacmarski said.
Those resistant to change “made it happen for our children,” she said. “We’re very proud of how this has all come together.”