The Environment as the Classroom

Key Practice: Using the environment and community as an educational tool to foster academic achievement and natural leaders.

Sunshine, rain, or snow, you’ll find students at Prairie Crossing Charter School outdoors. At this environmentally-focused charter school outside of Chicago, the acres of prairie, wetlands, and woodlands that comprise the school’s campus and immediate surroundings are the basis for its hands-on learning curriculum.

Prairie Crossing was founded by community members who sought to provide choice for public education in Lake County. The school is founded on four visions:

  • Environmental Learning at the center of everything the school does;
  • Academic Excellence through innovative educational experiences that prepare graduates academically, make them confident of who they are, and encourage them to be environmentally responsible;
  • Partner with Parents to help children learn the value of education, community, and the environment; and
  • Personal Responsibility where children are empowered to make a positive difference for themselves and their communities.

A unique school practice is the use of “solo spots.” Students are given the opportunity to walk within an outdoor area of the campus and select their favorite spot. For the rest of the year, this is a special place just for them. Teachers know each student’s selected solo spot, so they can give students physical space while still being able to keep an eye on them. In the early grades, students might use solo spots to journal, self-reflect, or work on a writing project.

In the later grades, service learning intensifies. One year, students partnered with the local Audubon Society to track bird migrations. Students kept careful notes on the birds they observed from their solo spots, and migration patterns became a broader topic across several academic subjects.

Photo credit: Prairie Crossing Charter School

Middle school students are challenged to create an impactful community project. Previous student projects included lobbying the Illinois legislature to ban plastic bags and creating a porous pavement demonstration.

“This is not a tree-hugging school, or park district, or summer camp,” said executive director Geoff Deigan. “This is actually results based, high-quality education that produces a high student growth.”

Prairie Crossing’s environmental focus has consistently earned state and national awards for strong academic growth, including:

Deigan views the focus as a means to academic excellence. He estimates about half of the parents who enroll their student at the school are initially agnostic or skeptical about the environmental focus and come to the school for the academic programming. But when parents see the academic and personal growth in their children, they are fully bought-in.

“This is done while performing things that just happen to be good for the planet and the people,” said Deigan.

Nora Kern
Nora KernSenior Associate at Safal Partners
Nora Kern, Senior Associate at Safal Partners Inc., has nearly a decade of experience in education policy and charter schools through her experience in non-profit and government organizations. Nora is committed to researching and promoting educational best practices that help all students access a high-quality education.