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The Power of Play

Turning classrooms into research labs, Sabot at Stony Point school is reinventing preschool and elementary education.

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Irene Carney calls Sabot at Stony Point the most intellectually rigorous school she has ever taught at or attended.  Photo by Scott Elmquist
  • Irene Carney calls Sabot at Stony Point the most intellectually rigorous school she has ever taught at or attended.  Photo by Scott Elmquist

Irene Carney is climbing through minivan doors, helping toddlers jump out of cars and holding kids' hands as their parents drop them off on a recent, sunny Thursday morning in South Richmond.

The executive director of Sabot at Stony Point, Carney makes sure to engage each of her young pupils, greeting them individually. It's surreally democratic. The children are treated as equals, capable of directing their own learning, a purposeful blurring of the typical teacher-pupil hierarchy.

“That was the trash truck,” says a little boy in a baseball cap. Carney shares his enthusiasm as he riffs on one that drives by.

One by one, each preschooler is escorted into the school — a stone-and-brick 1920s-era Tudor revival mansion — up a grand stairwell into all-white rooms with large windows and dark wood trim. Apart from the air of faded grandeur — there's a stone fireplace in the kindergarten room — the classrooms seem typical, homey. Art projects are on display, kids are huddled together, picture books are open.

To Carney these are labs for young researchers. Each room in the school's prekindergarten and lower elementary grades features a “studio” — an artistic hub in which children experiment with different media, develop theories and create art projects to express ideas.

“Our message to our children is, this is a learning community where every single one of you is affecting everyone else's learning,” says Carney, a diminutive, freckled 59-year-old with a strawberry blonde bob.

With the preschoolers settled in, Carney moves to the school's kindergarten class, where children gather around a mass of wooden blocks. The project begins organically, Carney says: One year it became a model of a creek bed, another year a study of the lunar surface, another year “a really in-depth study of the Middle Ages and castle life.” This year — so far — it's “a princess trying to escape a kingdom because she doesn't like to be ‘on' all the time,” Carney says.

Born in 2007 through a merger between the private pre-kindergarten Sabot School and the independent pre-K through eighth grade Stony Point School, Sabot at Stony Point sits on 28 acres of the former estate of early-20th-century Richmond tobacco manufacturer Lewis G. Larus, adjacent to a city park by the same name.

The school is a mishmash of buildings in progress — a hilltop clearing surrounded by woods and studded by the mansion, white-clapboard cottages, a renovated pool house and trailers that all serve as classrooms. A walled garden by Virginia landscape architect Charles F. Gillette is flanked by a giant mound of red dirt: the beginning of a planned $2 million expansion.

Philosophically, the school's model is a combination of progressive educational theories that stress collaboration among pupils, teachers and parents; learning by developing a child's innate interests; and class projects that grow naturally through investigation and research — words stressed heavily by Sabot at Stony Point teachers.

To enter this world, families pay an annual tuition of $5,040 for preschoolers, and $10,870 for lower- and middle-school pupils — a level more modest than some other area private schools, but high enough to be prohibitive to a swath of children; the school offers some need-based tuition assistance.

While the merged school is still new, staff members point to academic research on best-practice educational methods supporting their approach. Most graduates of Sabot at Stony Point enroll in governor's schools, specialty schools or other independent schools after they graduate, Carney says. This year, for the first time, the school is conducting standardized testing to gauge pupils' progress.

“We have to check our suppositions,” Carney says. “What we're finding is that they are more than well-prepared — the test results are very positive.”

The preschool employs the Reggio Emilia approach, based on a municipal school model developed by parents in Reggio Emilia, Italy, following World War II, which strived to prepare a nurturing environment for the next generation.

“The community came together and said, ‘How can we make sure fascist regimes don't take over our community [again],'” says Amy Peirsol, a doctoral candidate in early education at the University of Georgia who spent several months last year observing classes at Sabot at Stony Point for her dissertation.

Other visitors to the school have included an Irish Fulbright researcher and the U.S. liaison for the Reggio Emilia approach; school teachers, in turn, have traveled to Italy and given presentations at education conferences.

The school's elementary and middle school curricula draw on constructivism, an idea broadly defined as children and teachers constructing knowledge together, and on the writings of Harvard education expert Howard Gardner, Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget and the philosopher and education reformer John Dewey.

On the ground, teachers observe children's play to detect intellectual strengths and develop class projects around them. One boy's fascination with violins, for example, has spawned reading, writing and art projects, the building of musical instruments in the school's central studio and a visit by a local violin maker.

Even classroom conflict is an opportunity. One year, a group of kindergarteners and first-graders arguing over the rules for soccer at recess built a model of the soccer field to reach consensus, which in turn became a study of scale, measurement and geometric principles, Carney says. Peirsol recalls a group of 3-year-olds gushing over a mushroom they found outside, then laboring to make a sign that read “Stop” to protect it.

There are traditional elements too. The elementary school curriculum draws on standards set by Teachers College at Columbia University, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Research Council. But no grades are handed out in the elementary school. Rather than grades acting as an external motivator, Carney says, “What the research shows is that they're not.” No desks exist until fifth grade. Instead, there are project tables.

On a wall in the fourth-grade classroom, pupils have made a chart of internal and external character qualities as part of the short stories they're writing. “We're thinking about our character's struggle and motivations,” a boy explains.

Nearby are mapping projects of a creek in nearby Lewis G. Larus Park — some students have chosen three-dimensional models, others drawings; one group wanted to measure rock density and water flow. “Creatures are not to scale,” a clay model cautions.

In the middle school, where research takes on a more individual bent under faculty mentorship, current projects include a documentary film of the school, the launching of a newspaper and a bamboo art installation inspired by one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City — the pupil has corresponded with the artists about materials and technical details.

Carney has become a force among independent educators in Richmond. Growing up in a Catholic family in Pittsburgh, she saw one of her sisters, who was profoundly mentally retarded, institutionalized in 1960. She says her career track unconsciously sprang from a drive to help her sister and others like her, “so that families wouldn't have to send [children] away as our family had.”

After graduating, Carney worked at a private school for children with autism before getting her master's and doctoral degrees in special education. She helped found other independent private schools in Richmond — Orchard House School, because she wanted another middle-school option for her daughter; and Seven Hills middle school for boys, which her son attended. She's served on the boards of Richmond Montessori School and St. Joseph's Villa, as an adviser to the Children's Museum of Richmond, and was appointed by Gov. Tim Kaine to a state task force on day care.

“I think she's got a real gift for hearing the child,” says Nancy Davies, founding head of Orchard House School.

In 2006 a group of several parents approached Carney about creating a kindergarten class for the pre-merger Sabot School. Parents and teachers read up on educational theory and planned together for the expansion with Carney.

“The level of interest that the children had in learning is still as contagious as it was in preschool,” says Heather McGuire, one of the founding parents of the kindergarten. “They're just completely fired up.”

Carney acknowledges the approach isn't right for every child — an extremely introverted kid, or a fiercely independent learner, or one that learns better in a more structured school environment, for example. And the constructivist approach has been criticized for undermining traditional — and time-tested — ways of accumulating knowledge.

Carney relishes the chance to grow Sabot at Stony Point, a school that with just 152 pupils she calls “the most intellectually rigorous” of all those in which she's taught or worked — including universities — and functions for its staff and families as an academic lab on a hill, where third-graders are composing music, second-graders are writing personal narratives and first-graders are choreographing dances.

“We are looking for kids who can feed the idea machine,” she says. S

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