Students at the elementary school engage in learning outside of the classroom.
From the outside, on a cold, sunny November morning, Belle Heth Elementary School, all modern angles and chunky blocks of purple and red, is surprisingly quiet.
No clanging bells, no distant clamor, and the playgrounds are empty. But step inside and over the intercom in the terrazzo- and light-filled foyer of Belle Heth Elementary School, a calm voice says, “if you’re in Mrs. Page’s Garden Club meet in her classroom to walk to Wildwood Park,” and Tara Grant, principal at Belle Heth, blonde bob and a tidy sweater sweeps into the main office. There is plenty going on.
This is Belle Heth’s Club Day Friday.
There will be seven Club Days this fall on Friday mornings scheduled during the school’s 40-minute “innovation” period. Students have chosen their top three interests from a list of 20 Clubs that stretch from ‘Art in STEAM’ through Coding and Cooking to Volleyball and Yoga.
Clubs at Belle Heth mix students of all grades and abilities, big kids and little kids, working together learning sign language, cheerleading, or chess exposes everybody to different points-of-view, develops communication skills, and patience.
“And, importantly, it helps young people learn to work in groups, a skill employers say is often lacking in university graduates,” Grant said.
Schools across the state are now talking with the Radford school to design their own club days modeled on Belle Heth’s.
Over her shoulder, Tara is saying, “We have Cooking Club, Cardboard Creations, Green Screen club. That’s in the fall. In the spring, we get ready for Maker Faire.” Maker Faire is an entrepreneurial event, where kids make and then sell the things they make.
“We make everything from slime to cupcakes.”
Passing the main desk, someone hands Tara Grant a folder and says, “we had another one throw up in front of the library. Tis the season.”
In Grant’s office, she’s printing off the list of the twenty clubs, the teachers that lead them, and the resources they need, like “devices with Do Ink app”, graphite powder, baby food jars, duct tape, and corn starch.
“We do a lot,” she said.
And, clearly, that lot is supported from many sides. Donation lists to parents ask for tape straws rolls of foil, Zip lock bags, small pebbles, uncooked spaghetti noodles and ping-pong balls. The school uses volunteers and interns. Grant’s daughter is helping the Yearbook Club take pictures of the Cooking Club. Her mom, a former principal herself, and two aunts, one a former Belle Heth teacher, are helping kids stitch green felt pincushions in Sewing Club and talk about art and fashion design.
On the corkboards and bookcases ringing Tara Grant’s desk, there are baby pictures, a JMU banner, and someone has made a construction paper Tara recognizable by her blonde bob, this one in leopard-print leggings and a cape. She is a super-hero. A calligraphied message says, “Make it Happen.” We print off the club list and fly out of the office.
Grant moves down the hall like the former track athlete she is past walls papered with posters that say “Make Today the Day to Learn Something New” and “Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching” another, “Makers dream big, explore options, imagine new possibilities.”
Anti-bullying signs are posted at every door, rules as matter-of-fact as fire escape instructions. Classrooms are carpeted often with soft lighting and bookshelves, like a pleasant room at home and Tara Grant is greeted in every one.
Stepping into Cooking Club, students are learning how to make healthy snacks students can make at home. “What are we making today?” she called. “Tortillas!” everyone yelled back.
In the hall, reaching to hug a small boy running past, he held up sticky fingers and said apologetically, “Oh! But I have hot dogs….” “That’s okay,” she said and gave him a squeeze.
The Green Screen Club assembles in the hall painted bright green. Students, comfortable in front of the camera, are filming each other, easily delivering lines changing the background. In the very quiet Sign Language Club, the whole class signs “Welcome” and a girl volunteers to sign, “Hi! My name is Sophia. I’m a student. I live in Radford.”
“Wow. That’s awesome,” Tara said.
“Do you all remember ‘Thank you’? Taking the thanks from yourself and giving it to others,” Club leader Bari Trussell asked.
The whole class signs “Thank you” and then makes a raise-the-roof sign pumping both hands in the air, the sign that means “Awesome.”
And it is absolutely awesome. Earlier this year, Belle Heth, not a wealthy or privileged school, rose in literacy and testing scores among its students. That success is due in part to moving toward more creative and innovative lesson plans. And in building communities of education, working with Radford and Virginia Tech, recruiting interns, volunteers, parents, and building business partnerships to fund new programs and train teachers. With tape, ping-pong balls, and uncooked spaghetti noodles, Belle Heth Club Day is making it happen.
Belle Heth will be hosting its big family event, Family Maker Night, 6-8 p.m. Thursday. Last year, the free event drew about 1,000 people.
“Our teachers will have hands-on stations in classrooms centered around Making and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math). We invite [the public] to come and see the wonderful problem-solving that is happening in our school,” Principal Grant said.