January 24, 2019

A nontraditional learning environment pays off in unexpected ways at Kadima Day School

Faced with mounting research on the limits of the traditional classroom model, educators at Kadima Day School decided to break down the walls of learning — literally.

Kadima, a pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade Jewish school in West Hills with nearly 250 students, decided in the summer of 2015 to double the size of its middle-school language arts classroom in an effort to create a more dynamic space.

Faced with an abundance of research that the traditional classroom setup — with a teacher at the front, lecturing to rows of students seated at desks — is not the only way students learn, or even the best way students learn, Kadima’s administrators wanted to try something different. By doubling the size of a classroom and creating a more flexible space, they hoped to foster modes of learning not feasible in a smaller, traditional classroom — such as collaboration, debate and independent thinking — and take into account students’ unique preferences for, say, working standing up.

The plan was to knock down the wall between two adjoining classrooms, one of which was only used a small percentage of the school day. The budget was limited. But school principal Kristi Combs, 39, said the Kadima administration wasn’t going to let budgetary constraints stand in the way of innovation. “It’s all about taking risks,” she said.

Kadima’s in-house maintenance team did nearly all of the work. And veteran language-arts teacher Kerri Stern, 43, hit yard sales for furniture. Parents and friends of Stern’s made donations, as well, including an oversized lounge chair that has become the students’ favorite place to sit.  

At about the same time, Greg Kovacs, a Los Angeles native, came on board as the new head of school. Prior to joining Kadima, Kovacs, 48, served as CEO of C5LA, which prepares high-potential teens from low-income communities for leadership roles.

Kovacs said one of his primary goals for Kadima when he arrived was “engaging children in their education, helping them become excited about their own education.”

The expanded classroom was in keeping with that vision. “Instead of reading a book or listening to a lecture, we have multipurpose classrooms where [students] can walk from their desk and learn in a very different way,” Kovacs said.

Stern’s classroom still features a more traditional setup on one side – though she constantly changes it up — along with a glass dining room-style table with four chairs that students often use for peer-to-peer editing. On the other side of the expanded room is a low table surrounded by about a dozen ottomans — where classes engage in spirited literary discussions — as well as a handful of nooks with comfortable seating.

Stern, who was enthusiastic about the change from the get-go, admits it took some experimentation to figure out how best to use the additional square footage. And some transitions were initially challenging: moving from, say, a grammar lesson to independent reading could be chaotic, with some kids racing to claim their favorite spot. But it didn’t take long for everyone to settle in and for Kovacs and Combs to recognize that this experiment was working beautifully.

“Two people sitting on a couch versus at a table — that comfort, that extra breath they are taking, allows for a much more thoughtful reflection,” Combs said.

Given the experiment’s success, they decided to replicate the model and expanded the middle school science room over the school’s 2015-2016 winter break. (The school also has a dedicated science lab.) And this summer, walls came down in the third- and fifth-grade classrooms.

“Each child learns differently,” Kovacs said. “Some may be very artistic. Maybe someone is very much auditory. Another student might need to be up and active. These new spaces engage students at multiple levels, meeting those needs.” 

The students are fans, as well. According to seventh-grader Max Sinai, 12, in the past, “we would have to move all these chairs to get in groups. We [were] all really close together, so it would be really loud. Since the expansion, we don’t actually have to move. This has it spread out perfectly. …It’s really good for group work.” 

“One of the unintended outcomes,” Combs said, “is a huge social component. …We didn’t realize how changing the learning space impacts that so much, allows for a conversation versus instruction, space to problem-solve on their own.”

In this way, the classroom changes are part of the school’s larger goal of empowering students, creating leaders, and ensuring students feel their voices matter. To that end, Kovacs has welcomed student council representatives to administrative meetings. Last spring, a thoughtful and compelling student appeal about modifying uniforms was presented, and was ultimately accepted by the administration.

“Having the student voice being heard … has been a big part of my vision,” Kovacs said. “They have an ability to take part in their education.” 

Now, he said, students feel they are taking ownership of their education and their experience. “When you create that ownership, learning and connection goes up [to] a much higher level.”