Blue Valley’s flexible learning environments create new learning opportunities, collaboration for students and teachers
At Prairie Star Elementary, long gone are the days of walking down the hallways and feeling siloed. Now, as you walk the halls, there is light, the sound of students working together and a flexible concept that lends itself to collaboration. These changes at Prairie Star, and all Blue Valley elementary schools, are due to the addition of flexible learning environments (FLEs).
As you enter one of the elementary school’s pods and come upon a group of classrooms, you no longer have to step through the classroom door to see students engaging in work. Instead, flexible doors and walls transform rooms from closed to open spaces, giving way to classroom happenings.
Most students sit at round or square tables surrounded by various seating options. Some students sit comfortably on a small pillow on the floor, while others might gently bounce on an exercise ball. Some may sit in more traditional chairs.
FLEs create spaces for various learning opportunities, from individual and small group to large group work. The design of FLEs creates opportunities for nimble learning and student learning configurations with more teacher supervision.
“Before FLEs, we didn’t have good learning spaces to pull more than one group of kids together,” said Mary Jane Weishar, an instructional design coach for Blue Valley. “We just didn’t have that flexibility where we could open a wall and push people together or separate people. It’s helped us change our instructional practices with kids.”
Flexible learning environments have changed the energy and ambiance in Blue Valley’s elementary schools. Construction of FLEs began in 2018, with 19 of the 21 elementary schools completed since. The remaining two buildings will be completed by the summer of 2023. Blue Valley’s 2020 bond referendum made construction of FLEs possible at all elementary locations.
FLEs started in Blue Valley as staff members were looking to find ways to create environments that allow for greater collaboration. Adding FLEs to Blue Valley schools has been a multi-year process involving input from students, staff and community members.
“There was a really comprehensive plan from day one that if we’re going to implement this, how do we keep our kids and staff safe,” said Jake Slobodnik, Blue Valley’s executive director of operations. “Every building is outfitted with a layered approach starting at the front door and continuing into the classroom pods. In my mind, these buildings are safer than they were before.”
Each building’s FLE is organized differently based on the needs of each school. At Prairie Star, classrooms are grouped by grade, allowing grade-level teachers to collaborate.
But at Blue River Elementary, kindergarten classrooms are next to third grade classrooms, first grade next to fifth grade and second grade next to fourth grade. This grouping allows classes to participate in the building’s reading buddies program efficiently.
Stacey Sperry, Prairie Star Elementary principal, said the building’s energy has changed due to instruction changing. One of her favorite memories occurred on a back-to-school night during year two of the FLE.
“It was the first time ever that if your best friend was not in your classroom, you could still see them and that is comforting for children,” Sperry said. “I was blown away by how diminished the phone calls were that I took on anxiety and worries because students could see their friends.”
FLEs open door to more student, teacher collaboration
As you walk through Prairie Star Elementary, you may notice three phrases incorporated into signs hanging in hallways and classrooms. The words “Be safe, be kind, be responsible” have become part of the building’s common language.
This was born out of the FLEs, giving staff a common language to base collaboration around while giving each teacher ownership of their classroom.
Collaboration is a prominent aspect of FLEs. While students are at recess or in specials, teachers can open their doors between rooms and sit together at a table and discuss lesson plans.
“Collaboration has grown enormous amounts,” Weishar said. “If you and I are going to do something together, it changes the whole instructional practice. I think the kids get more equal opportunity of their education.”
Because of the open concept, teachers can see into other classrooms and observe their colleagues' teaching.
Debbie Kelly, Blue River Elementary principal, said there was no pressure put on teachers to use the FLEs in a certain way. Paraprofessionals can use the pod space to work with students individually and students who have testing accommodations can sit in the pod space while still under a teacher’s direct supervision.
“We have two teachers who tend to team teach whole group instruction so they started opening the doors,” Kelly said. “I think the embracing came from letting them create the ways to use the space and not me saying, ‘Here’s what you’re going to do.’”
When there is teacher collaboration, student collaboration follows.
“When they can work in groups, they are intentional and purposeful about their work with their peers,” Kelly said. “Anytime the kids can be learning from the teacher and each other, there are positive benefits from both of those aspects.”
Because FLEs enhance student ownership and staff collaboration, it leads to higher learning outcomes.
Flexible learning environments at Blue Valley have opened the door to more collaboration and independence while giving buildings a refreshed look.
With a flexible concept comes the ability for teachers and students to work closely together on lessons but work independently as a classroom when needed. The option for choice has increased due to FLEs.
“When I walk the buildings I see classrooms have that wall in between them open where they didn’t have that opportunity before,” Slobodnik said.
FLEs have highlighted the exceptional teaching and learning occurring in Blue Valley classrooms.
“The district has always had great educators,” said Amy Farthing, executive director of school administration. “FLEs have allowed them to rise to the occasion.”