New downtown school embraces community education

Joe Pierce, Head of School, inside a commons area at the new John Rex School.  (Mark Hancock)

Joe Pierce, Head of School, inside a commons area at the new John Rex School. (Mark Hancock)

John Rex Charter Elementary’s status as a downtown school goes well beyond its location at the corner of Sheridan and Walker avenues. Its access to the cultural institutions of Oklahoma City’s central business district will create an urban education setting not seen in any other school.

“We can go out in the community and access resources that no other child in Oklahoma can access,” said Joe Pierce, head of school at John Rex.

With a public library, a modern art museum and a botanical garden all within walking distance of the school, the concept of a classroom without walls takes on a whole new meaning at John Rex.

“It’s as if they were adjunct faculty of our school; we can use their expertise,” Pierce said about the community partners — including downtown business and cultural leaders — he has already formed relationships with.

The excitement is obvious when talking with teachers who feel a sense of freedom and creativity they might not have experienced at other schools.

“We get to walk to the library, the museum has an open-door policy for us, Myriad Gardens is right across the street — it’s amazing,” said Karin Rowe, a kindergarten teacher at John Rex. “It’s going to be excellent for the education of the students to really get out and experience things.”

John Rex will focus on core subjects like reading and math, but there will also be resources devoted to those subjects that tend to take a backseat in today’s budget-crunched culture of public education.

“You need to teach to the whole child,” Rowe said. “It’s not just the reading and math; it’s everything: the science and technology, the arts and music. It’s amazing to finally have the opportunity here.”

Building a community

Brittney Bierschenk, 2nd grade teacher, and Karin Rowe, Kindergarten, near the front entrance with a view of downtown, at the new John Rex School.  (Mark Hancock)

Brittney Bierschenk, 2nd grade teacher, and Karin Rowe, Kindergarten, near the front entrance with a view of downtown, at the new John Rex School. (Mark Hancock)

Of all the businesses, restaurants and cultural institutions that are new to downtown in recent years, it could be argued that John Rex will have the largest impact on making Oklahoma City’s core business district a true community.

“You don’t get much more community-based than an elementary school,” said Jane Jenkins, president of Downtown Oklahoma City, Inc. “[A school] really is the definition of a neighborhood and community. It’s the place that communities rally behind.”

As a charter school, John Rex aims to boost educational achievement in the city’s urban core. But it is also addressing a concern for many young families who might be interested in moving downtown but are unsure about the schools.

“It makes downtown more attractive for families and makes living downtown more of a realistic achievement for families,” said Daniel Chae, the PTA secretary at John Rex and a parent of two students.

Chae said the excitement of parents can be found not only in enrollment numbers but in the involvement in PTA. Before the school even opened, more than 130 parents signed up to be involved.

“The energy behind it and the location in the downtown area is amazing,” Chae said. “I come from a background of community development, so seeing a school in the heart of downtown was very attractive to me.”

The addition of a school downtown is also about continuing the momentum of recent years, Jenkins said.

“I think it was so critical to downtown,” Jenkins added. “The lessons that we need to learn now are how … we capture and keep our former investments while we focus on building new communities and new experiences. This school helps us do that.”

Pierce said the school has been overwhelmed with enrollment questions and it’s not uncommon for him to receive a visit from a young couple that don’t have a school-aged child yet.

“I think as we meet young families, we are seeing that there are a lot of people who want to live downtown, they want to walk their child to school and they want to be involved,” Pierce said.

Karin Rowe, a Kindergarten teacher, demonstrates the circular reading spaces, at the new John Rex School.  (Mark Hancock)

Karin Rowe, a Kindergarten teacher, demonstrates the circular reading spaces, at the new John Rex School. (Mark Hancock)

Class in session

John Rex welcomed its new students for the first day of class on Aug.20. Around 325 students are currently enrolled in pre-kindergarten through second grade. Each year, the school will add another grade level until it reaches sixth grade, which will bring total enrollment to 600.

A waiting list currently exists for each grade level as the school uses a four-tier system in considering students. First priority goes to students living in the downtown area, which is roughly between the Oklahoma River and 13th Street. Residents of the Oklahoma City Public Schools district, students who have parents working downtown and then all families are considered.

Sixteen full-time teachers are on staff, along with other support staff and administrators.

Bright colors are seen throughout the school building, along with large windows that allow the surrounding skyline to be visible in almost every room. Each grade-level classroom is built around a shared space called “learning launchers” that encourage collaborative learning. The building also includes space for a possible rooftop garden, and an outdoor classroom will be included between the main building and gym.

Student-centered approach

The uniqueness of John Rex will go beyond its downtown location, as the school will also use student-centered curriculum in an effort to tailor the school experience to each child.

“We are really taking into account that child’s abilities and interests, what they want to do and what they can do, and then shaping their education to fit them,” said Brittney Bierschenk, a second-grade teacher at John Rex. “That is not something you see in the cookie-cutter generation of education.”

In addition to using the Oklahoma Academic Standards, John Rex embraces a personalized learning plan (PLP) that looks to create specific learning styles for each student, taking into consideration academic weakness along with student interest.

Print headline

‘Whole child’ education / John Rex Charter Elementary School builds neighborhood spirit in the heart of downtown

Ben Felder

Ben is a news reporter covering local politics, City Hall and education in urban Oklahoma City. He lives in OKC with his wife, Lori, and son, Satchel. Ben holds a masters in new media journalism from Full Sail University and is an OKC transplant from Kansas City, Mo. Twitter: @benfelder_okg

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