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Education

Back to Skola

A new, nature-based elementary school in Whitefish is taking learning outdoors and bringing social and emotional education into the conversation

By Denali Sagner
Coat and backpack rack one of The Skola’s outdoor campuses in Whitefish on Nov. 16, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

At The Skola — Whitefish’s newest independent, nature-based school — every day starts with movement.

Morning movement can look a lot of ways — running, jumping or traversing the outdoor obstacle course on the school’s farm campus north of town. According to director and founder Brooke Ober, the independent school puts exercise at the top of the agenda to bring its schedule in line with educational research that says students learn best when their days start with movement.

After some morning play, The Skola’s students gather for a mindfulness activity before breaking into homeroom groups. Then the day of project-based, nature-centric learning begins in earnest.

“It’s really, really about learning to learn, and not about being told what to do,” Ober said of The Skola’s educational model. “Having them shift that model of wonder and curiosity and thinking.”

The Skola is an independent elementary school located in and around Whitefish that describes itself as using “mixed-age groups for classroom activities, community projects, and nature immersions, in addition to 1-on-1 sessions with our learning specialists to bring focused attention to each child’s experience.” The offshoot of a small, nature-based preschool that opened in Whitefish a few years ago, the school seeks to bring students into the natural world and away from their screens, facilitating imaginative learning and disrupting the prevailing model of elementary education found in today’s classrooms.

The Skola’s elementary school program was born out of Foxtail Förskola, a nature-based, Scandinavian inspired preschool that was brought to Whitefish by Kayla Nickells in 2018. At Foxtail, students spent 80% of their day outdoors, rain-or-shine, and learned through special hands-on projects, unstructured time in nature and social and emotional learning activities. Foxtail’s mission was in its name. Förskola means preschool in Swedish, an homage to Foxtail’s construction around the Scandinavian early childhood education model, which prioritizes outdoor learning.

In 2022, a group of parents whose children attended Foxtail got together with an idea — expanding Foxtail beyond preschool and starting a fully-fledged elementary school offshoot. Ober, Nickells, Brittney Crest and Patty Johnson, now The Skola’s curriculum director, sat around a table, cooking up plans for an elementary school extension. By fall 2022, The Skola was born.

At the core of The Skola’s model is what Ober and her teachers call “project-based learning.” In the project-based model, students engage in multi-week, hands-on activities that connect them to the natural world and prompt them to ask questions and engage in imaginative thinking. Rather than sit through multiple, fragmented lessons every day, The Skola’s holistic model wraps reading, math, science and social studies, as well as social and emotional learning, into engaging projects that bend everyday classroom norms.

The Skola’s students play on a log seesaw on one of the school’s outdoor campuses in Whitefish on Nov. 16, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In their most recent project, the school’s teachers and parents said, The Skola’s students learned about sheep.

For the sheep project, students spent time in the classroom studying sheep and created guiding questions to anchor their learning. A bulletin board at The Skola’s downtown campus sits adorned with drawings of sheep and pieces of paper featuring questions from “Where do sheep come from?” to “How do sheep die?” After formulating their questions, Skola students went out into the field at The Skola’s nature campus to observe real sheep and hear from their caretakers. Then, the elementary school students learned how to dye and carve wool. Soon, they’ll be using the wool they processed to make holiday gifts for their families.

“Something that’s really important for us is that the children are doing meaningful, authentic work, and that the projects really help dig deeper to learn more about the place around them,” Johnson, the school’s curriculum director, said.

Ober said that the projects help students to draw connections across disciplines and stay engaged in class.

“They just start getting all of this curiosity around sheep, and then what’s fun is that, as they’re learning, they come up and answer the questions,” she said. “They’re writing and they’re using what they’re learning in phonics, and they don’t even know it, because they’re so excited to write it.”

Projects often take The Skola’s students and teachers out into the community and the natural world, a fundamental element of the community-based model the school is hoping to foster. Since its opening last fall, The Skola has partnered with the Whitefish Theater Company, Samaritan House, North Valley Food Bank and Columbia Falls-based nonprofit Land to Hand.

An indoor classroom space at one of The Skola’s campuses in Whitefish on Nov. 16, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“For a child that has a lot of energy, like our child, to be able to get outside of the classroom and learn in an environment like this, or in town walking to the park or along the river, it allows him to move his body and learn through activity rather than feeling confined to the classroom all the time,” Artie Regan, the parent of a Skola student, said during a family event at the school on Nov. 16.

Karen Pogorzelski, The Skola’s outdoor educator, said that the school’s proximity to nature offers a vibrant backdrop for outdoor projects and allows her to teach students skills that last far beyond elementary school. Recent outdoor education activities have covered how to build a shelter, make a fire and identify plants and animals native to the Flathead Valley.

“We try to make it fun, and a lot of that is based on the place. Like instead of learning about tigers, we’re going to learn about mountain lions because we’re here,” Pogorzelski said.

“They’re learning so many skills that they might not even realize until ten years down the road.”

The program’s team, led by Ober, consists of 13 professionals with backgrounds in outdoor education, teaching, speech language pathology, executive functioning, social and emotional learning and early childhood development.

Ober is a certified speech language pathologist who spent her career working with children, consulting with schools and running summer camps before taking on the job as The Skola’s founding director last year. In her eyes, social and emotional learning and executive functioning skills sit at the core of The Skola’s mission and drive the everyday work of her educators.

“The teachers, the academic specialists, they’re coming up with a lot of the specific curriculum, and then I’m saying, ‘How do we teach it and guide it in a way that’s going to promote these social-emotional executive function skills?” Ober said.

“We really have confidence in the people that founded and currently run the school,” Regan, the parent of a Skola student, said. “We like the social-emotional side of learning that they incorporate and the idea of experiential-based learning.” 

Ober said that developing well-rounded children with strong executive functioning skills is core to The Skola’s mission. Yet alongside the school’s hands-on projects comes a strong foundation in academics.

“A lot of alternative schools focus on these different holistic and social-emotional models, and then not as much on the academics. We’re really trying to do both. Really, our push is that the academic rigor still stays really high, and we have this really strong social-emotional, whole child model,” Ober said. 

Students run about one of the The Skola’s outdoor campuses in Whitefish on Nov. 16, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Though nature-based schools defy traditional models of elementary education, Ober feels fully confident that Skola students are “beyond ready” to continue their education beyond the independent school’s walls.

While The Skola’s students are not measured through standardized exams, like students in public school, Ober said the individualized attention that her teachers are able to give to students helps ensure that no student is left behind and that learning can be customized to help each child succeed.

“You might have a third grader who’s doing second-grade math and who’s doing closer to fourth-grade reading. It just depends,” Ober said about the range of ability within students of the same grade level, something that The Skola is attuned to. “If you have a kid who’s a second grader, but their reading is a bit behind, they’re just going to get farther behind if they’re in a in large classroom.”

In its first year, The Skola opened with just first- and second-grade students, in addition to the existing Foxtail preschool. Now, in its second year, The Skola is home to Foxtail, as well as kindergarten, first, second and third graders. The dream, Ober said, is to add a grade level each year.

The school’s biggest dream is to consolidate learning under one campus, rather than split time between its three locations, which is the current model. The Skola is seeking donations from the community, not only to make a new campus possible, but to lower barriers to entry for enrollment. Currently, it costs $11,000 per year to attend The Skola. While 25% of students received scholarships for the 2023-24 school year, Ober knows there’s room to grow.

“Ideally, we want this to be a community school,” Ober said. “We do not want this to be a private school that people aren’t able to attend. So our hope is that that just keeps growing.”

Students from The Skola play on a ropes course in the trees at one of the school’s outdoor campuses on Nov. 16, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

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