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Practicing Experiential Learning at Mount Madonna School

By Marina I. Jokic

Established in 1979, Mount Madonna School in Watsonville, California is a private school which is dedicated to a curriculum founded on academic rigor, positive character development, and creative self-expression. The school is a Pre/K-12th grade institution, and prides itself on its small class size and project-based, experiential learning.

Upon opening its doors in 1979, MMS started small. That year, the first, second, and third grades were combined into one class, with one teacher and eight students. Adding a higher grade each year as the school expanded and stabilized was the growth plan that MMS followed, eventually increasing to its current size, with a robust faculty body of over thirty and staff of more than twenty. MMS has established its cachet in the Pre/K-12th academic community.

Current Lower School Director and teacher Jennifer Leach finished her Master in Elementary Education at the University of Colorado, Boulder and joined MMS in 2010. "I grew up in a family of teachers and have felt a natural calling to teach since I was a young girl," she explains. Working with children from her early teenage years, Leach has committed herself to ensuring that every child at the school has the skills and tools to achieve success without losing sight of their personal development and duty to protect the environment.

Learning is crucial at MMS, but learning in the right context and allowing students to explore extra-curricular activities are equally significant, Leach points out. The value of the natural world is specifically highlighted in the school's curriculum. "We enjoy the inspiring environment on Mount Madonna's 355 acre campus where students, teachers and staff take daily hikes to learn about flora and fauna, to exercise and to connect with nature," she says. Discovering the world outside the classroom can be a powerful learning tool, and teachers at MMS have had great success using it on a daily basis.

As a way to foster community, sharing, and understanding, the school has implemented a support-a-buddy program across all grades which encourages students to become teachers and leaders of their own. Mentoring another student can be a great way to not only help a fellow classmate, but also to discover and develop your natural talents as an individual.

Moreover, individuality is highly valued and encouraged at the school, with an emphasis on project-based learning and integrated subject units. "Students are intrinsically motivated when they are fully invested in learning through a multi-sensory model," Leach adds.

Another key advantage of the school's innovate curriculum is the small class sizes which naturally give way to positive personal relationships between students, teachers, parents, and among the staff, administration, board of trustees and the broader community. In addition, the small class sizes also allow for more individual attention to the academic, social and emotional needs of students.

Finally, emphasis is given to community service at MMS, teaching awareness of others through the social studies and values programs. Students are educated about other cultures, promoting a deeper understanding on the world around them. For instance, in the Lower School, students in all grades participate in local food drives, animal shelter donations, cooking for others and making art for sale in which the proceeds go to a chosen charity.

Several classes participate in other projects independently which include beach cleanups, local animal avocation and education, seed planting and others. "We keep students passionate about learning by giving them ownership of their projects and progress," says Leach.

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