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Progressive Private School In Normal Adds Early Learning In Second Year

Jen and Laura pose
Ryan Denham
Jen Stubbs, left, and Laura Kalmes from Bloom Community School in Normal, now entering its second year.

Parents and kids across Bloomington-Normal are about to snap back into their school routines as classes resume in Unit 5 and District 87 after summer break.

But for a private school in Normal, old habits have been expelled.

Bloom Community School, now in its second year, bills itself as a progressive, innovative elementary and middle school. Instead of teachers running a tight daily lesson plan, kids in blended-age classrooms are empowered to guide their own learning independently. That includes lots of project-based work, like when the fifth and sixth-graders spun their research into pollution and the environment into the building of an aquaponics unit.

“We really want kids to become risk-takers. We want them to take ownership over their learning,” said Laura Kalmes, a co-founder at Bloom who’s studied progressive education in her role as professor of education policy and philosophy at Illinois State University.

"We really want kids to become risk-takers. We want them to take ownership over their learning."

Bloom opened in 2017, now located on Beech Street at Normandy Village in Normal. It has around 30 students, from age 3 to 7th grade.

The first year was successful but also challenging, Kalmes said.

“There’s an idea that teachers ought to have a lot of control over children, that the classroom is predicated on control,” Kalmes said. “So we talked a lot about, is it really a problem for a child to get a snack when he or she is hungry so they can focus during the lesson? Do we need to monitor when they’re drinking water or using the bathroom?”

Kalmes stresses that Bloom is a “standards-based and standards-aligned program.” Parents participate in three parent-teacher conferences and receive two detailed narrative reports about their child’s educational progress and development, according to Bloom.

Bloom’s staff knows their students will someday transition to a more traditional school environment, Kalmes said.

“Instead of approaching education as covering standards, which is what many schools do, we treat it as uncovering standards,” Kalmes said. “So it takes a level of mastery and a different relationship for the teacher to implement this with students and with learning opportunities. We try to create authentic learning experiences for kids based out of their own questions."

“And then through a process called backward mapping, we take a look at the standards, we see what they’ve already accomplished, in ways that were generated by their own curiosity and enthusiasm,” she said. “And then when there are gaps or we need to refine the learning, we then cultivate experiences that can help students go deeper in those areas.”

Bloom’s model makes it easy to document progress, said Jen Stubbs, teacher, and coordinator of Bloom’s new early learning program for ages 4-5, called Seedlings.

“If children are guiding their own learning, teachers are on the sidelines and able to go around and take a picture and do a small video and document what’s happening, so that when we’re doing this backward mapping, later on, we’re able to take that video or picture and say, ‘This child is speaking in a complete sentence using an adjective and an adverb,’” Stubbs said.

Bloom’s tuition is between $6,900 and $7,500 annually, with discounts for siblings. Around 40 percent of students receive a scholarship, Kalmes said, as Bloom strives to represent Bloomington-Normal’s demographic and economic diversity in its student body.

This year Bloom will add the early learning program, led by Stubbs. She previously founded a nature play company and moved to Bloomington-Normal from Chicago last year.

Seedings will emphasize early math and literacy skills, intertwined with a big focus on art, Stubbs said. Social and emotional development is another major focus, she said.

“We’ll be getting the children outside of the classroom as much as possible to interact with nature, and then bringing nature into the classroom when we can’t be outside,” she said.

GLT's full interview.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.