Bloom Community School Students Explore ‘Community’ as Guiding Theme in Opening Year

By Rachel Lapp Whitt, Bloom Community School

What is community? Who is in our community? Where is community found? What does – and can – a community do? Bloom Community School students and their teachers are investigating these questions and many more as they follow their curiosities around town and build community with one another.

A new, nonprofit primary school serving Bloomington-Normal with a project-based, community-resourced approach to education, Bloom opened in June. By exploring community as its first school-wide thematic unit, students are investigating what community means to them, and how they might build classroom and school communities that embody the spirit of Bloom with leadership from teachers, parents, and volunteer board members who support administrative needs.

“Bloom’s mixed-age classrooms develop each theme across the curriculum to integrate learning – to connect student interests to academic inquiry and community resources,” said Dr. Laura Kalmes, president of the Bloom Community School Board of Directors.

“The idea of forming a school community is interwoven through social and academic learning activities in each classroom,” said Rachel Lapp Whitt, a Bloom board member.

In the Pod (kindergarten) classroom, Aimee Lastner’s students thought about community helpers – workers and careers of all kinds. They then moved on to creating their own community by plotting and painting geographical features and infrastructure. Meagan O’Brian’s Sprout (first and second grade) class approached the topic by talking about what a community needs – like a Bloom Community School, library, police station, fire station, parks, hospital, restaurants – and building and locating structures (they decided that the school should be at the center, with the fire and police services housed next door). The Pod and Sprout classes have visited the Bloomington and Normal Public libraries, a local fire station, Green Top Grocery, the Illinois Wesleyan University campus newspaper office, and more, and class visitors have introduced other community services like hospitals.

The Blossom classroom started the year with a topic related literally to community survival: food! Grace Sheese, whose class includes fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders, organized visits to a community garden and food pantry, the Refuge Food Forest, and both locally owned and large corporate grocery stores to explore food availability, sources, prices, and nutrition.

“In one of our first inquiries into the theme of community, we focused on ways in which communities are fed, and what it means when families don’t have the resources or live in a place that they can easily access the most nutritious foods,” said Sheese.

She arranged to visit the community garden and food pantry at Second Presbyterian Church, located just a few blocks from Bloom’s current location at 510 E. Washington Street. “We learned that potatoes were ready, so before we went we watched a video about the proper way to harvest them and then my friend Marjorie showed us what to do when we got there” Sheese said.

In exchange for fresh produce, the Blossom class members spent time weeding the community garden. Then they brainstormed ideas for foods they could prepare with the in-season vegetables they gathered, and researched recipes. Then they set a budget to buy additional items to create a menu that could feed their schoolmates. One student wrote an email to Green Top Grocery to ask to use the kitchen in the new co-op.

Then on a much-anticipated Friday morning, all three classes walked to The Foundry, located four blocks away, and the Blossom class started cooking in the Green Top Grocery kitchen while the Pod and Sprout classes discovered walk-in coolers and loading docks during a tour of the co-op. When the food was ready, the tasting began – and the mashed potatoes especially were a big hit.

“Making food for other students was a way for our class to build community,” said Sheese, “but it happens in other ways, too, like hanging out together on the playground, eating lunch together, or helping each other find books at the library.”

“Drawing out and building on student interests and inquiry is an important part of our work, which extends into all of our programming,” said Kalmes.

The school connects families with community partners who welcome Bloom students to their organizations or businesses to benefit from feedback about their educational programming. “Collaboration is really at the heart of our community connectedness,” Kalmes said. “We are so encouraged by the response we’ve received thus far, and are excited to build out those relationships as well as to welcome new partners in ways that align with both Bloom’s educational philosophy and community needs.”

Bloom Board Treasurer Karin McDowell reflected on the investment in education that Bloomington-Normal leaders made. “We view our work at Bloom as picking up that legacy – continuing in that tradition in our community – and that’s also part of the reason we’re excited to be part of Illinois Prairie Community Foundation’s work, to make connections among organizations that truly seek to make a difference and add to the thriving life of our region.”

If you would like to support programs like this, please consider contributing to Bloom Community School Fund. To donate online, click here.

Find out more about Bloom Community School, view our Bloom Community School Fund page or the school’s website.