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New elementary school takes holistic approach to learning

Grade-level benchmarks are predetermined, generic lessons plans are developed and progress is monitored with standardized testing. At the new Integral Elementary School of La Jolla, education is undertaken from an individualized, holistic approach.

Integral education provides children not just with an understanding of the world around them but also develops self-knowledge by incorporating body, mind and spirit into the learning process.

“What we’re doing here is very revolutionary, very unique,” said Principal Prapanna Smith.

Based on principles developed by Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassa and in practice more than 50 years at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education in India, integral education aims to create a joyful learning experience, develop each child’s unique skills and talents, achieve success in learning and encourage children to be responsible, compassionate participants in society.

The program is structured to achieve these goals by maintaining low student/teacher ratios, use of a free-progress system and a value-based curriculum.

Public schools average 20 students per one teacher, with that number increasing to 35 students per teacher after third grade. At Integral Elementary, the ratio is about one teacher per 11 children.

The school combines kindergarten through third-grade students into one section and then groups students by ability. These groups attend scheduled classes, with smaller clusters of children rotating through a variety of activities and projects.

“What we do that’s totally different is take three grades and they learn together. In this way, each and every child gets a lot of individual attention from the teacher,” Smith said.

The free-progress system - or progress with freedom, as Carla Gerstein, the school’s executive administrator puts it - is a learning philosophy that allows children to pursue their interests and strengths, while encouraging development as a whole.

Each child has an individual learning plan. This is a radical break from traditional benchmark teaching in that children progress at their own pace and teachers respect the individual developmental needs of each student.

The school environment is designed to be innovative and engaging, yet flexible in order to instill a desire to learn and a feeling of achievement.

Unlike some classrooms where students learn passively - memorizing lessons, listening to lectures, receiving information - integral education requires active participation from the children. They ask questions and explore topics, gather and process information, and become part of the learning, teaching, discovering experience.

The underlying foundation of integral education is a belief that learning should involve the whole child: body, mind and spirit. Yoga and meditation develop the children’s physical health and self-awareness. Through this multi-pronged approach, integral education provides children not only with traditional academic instruction but development of self-esteem, compassion and empathy, and an awareness of the world within and without.

“One of the goals is to create individual learners who have found some level of purpose or meaning,” said Gerstein.

Shannon Parsons of Poway has twin boys enrolled at Integral Elementary. Concerned they were falling behind in public school, she enrolled them in last year’s pilot program at the school’s affiliate, Rainbow Kids Integral Preschool in Mira Mesa.

“This is my alternative to home schooling,” she said.

Once frustrated learners, her boys now come home enthused and inspired.

“They’re learning stuff they’re going to remember forever because they were excited about it,” Parsons said.

Another component of the school’s curriculum she likes is the spirituality and meditation. She said her boys are learning how to take accountability for their own actions, as well as learning empathy for others.

“I know that when I send them here, they have the same ideals we do,” she said.

Although integral education promotes learning in a different manner than most contemporary institutions, much of the basics are the same. Classrooms are stocked with computers, games, videos, science equipment and books. Children adhere to a class schedule. The curriculum teaches math, science, literacy, humanities, art and physical education. Progress is monitored. State educational standards are met.

Integral education strives to take learning to a higher level and make it a personal experience.

“I get to work with individual children and see growth as they go,” said math and science teacher Karia Duncan. “I wouldn’t want to teach any other way. I think the biggest thing is that the children are excited about what they’re learning. They are enthusiastic. You don’t kneed to motivate them. Kids don’t see it as sit-down, pen-to-paper learning.”

Currently numbering about 20 students, Integral Elementary has staff and facilities to accommodate 110 students ranging from kindergarten to sixth grade. New students are being accepted.

Integral Elementary School of La Jolla is at 8660 Gilman Drive.

For more information, call (858) 450-4321 or go to www.integralelementary.com.