Learning goes well beyond textbooks at this Baton Rouge school

Sponsored by St. James Episcopal Day School

The south Louisiana sun shone down on a group of St. James Episcopal Day School fourth graders as they stood on the banks of the University Lakes in October. Armed with clipboards and pencils, the students met with Mark Goodson, project manager of the University Lakes Project. They took notes and made observational drawings to capture details of the invasive plant species they saw.

The outing was only the latest example of St. James’ project-based learning approach, which allows students to step away from the typical textbooks to tackle their own hands-on investigations of the subjects they study. Founded in 1948, the downtown Baton Rouge school is now celebrating its 75th year by drawing upon its rich history—including being named a U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon School three times—while continuing to innovate for a new generation of students.

“Project-based learning is a research-based model that helps to inspire in children a desire to learn while bringing their own personal experiences to the table,” says St. James Head of School Bridget Henderson. “Our fourth graders are going to make several return trips to the lakes to compare their drawings and create new ones and then consider what is happening over the course of time. Our children are actually investigating a real-world issue with experts in the field.”

As a true elementary school that serves students up to fifth grade, St. James’ educational model allows it to focus on the needs of its young students. “There is intentionality behind all of our decisions—from what our playgrounds look like to what materials we need,” Henderson says. “Everything is geared toward the students who are entrusted to our care. We have a real sense of ownership over all of our activities and programs that’s unique to a campus like ours.”

St. James’ administrators and faculty build each grade’s curriculum and programming to lead toward graduation day. “We know what we have to pour into our younger students to get to that point, with the end goal being that regardless of where our fifth graders go for middle school, they are prepared not only academically but also socially and emotionally,” Henderson says. “We expose them to a variety of enrichments so they are in a position to be risk takers in a very safe, warm community and to figure out what they want to pursue. By the time they leave here and go to sixth grade, they’re ready.”

St. James’ youngest students—18 months to 2 years old—are part of the Pelican’s Nest, a “launching pad for success” with a play-centered and faith-based curriculum. The Day School begins with PreK-3 and offers an integrated curriculum that is geared toward exceeding state and national standards and preparing students to be leaders as they reach the upper grades, whether through serving on student council, leading assemblies, or imparting wisdom to younger students through a buddy program.

Throughout its 75th year, the school is embracing a theme of “Telling Our Stories,” calling upon alumni, teachers and parents to share memories. The school is bringing back some old traditions this year, and the celebration will culminate with a soiree next spring.

“The one word I would use to describe St. James is joyful,” Henderson says. “This is a place where children are happy to come to school and teachers are happy to be aligned with us. There’s not a feeling like this in other places, and it’s not by accident, it’s by design. It would be really hard to step foot on this campus and not fall in love with it.”

For more information, visit online at stjameseds.org.