By Tyler Jones
Tucked off Interstate 101, the Beechwood School is an unlikely oasis for the area. But for nearly twenty years, it has been serving its broader mission. In April, BASIC Fund Co-Founder June McCarthy sat down with Principal David Laurance to learn more.
Founded by locals out of a desire to address inequities in the East Palo Alto and Menlo Park communities, the Beechwood School started out of a portable building next to the railroad tracks. Beechwood has since grown. In September of 2013, Beechwood secured plans to develop a $12 million new campus. The school’s leadership believes that a large reason that its students have been able to successfully prepare for high school and college is because they are made to feel safe. “What we've found,” says Principal David Laurance, is that if students are in a safe place -- physically, but also emotionally -- and are with teachers who care and form positive relationships with their students, the students go on to good high schools, graduate, go to college, and become good contributors to the workplace.”
Another reason Principal Laurance believes has made Beechwood so successful is because of its holistic approach to learning. “If we have a child who isn't reading at their level -- for example, a 3rd grader not reading at that level -- we find areas where they are making progress,“ says Laurance. “We had one student struggling socially, emotionally, academically -- [but] now she is just struggling academically.” When the emotional and social problems are relieved, the academic problem becomes much easier to address. “When our students are not here at Beechwood,” Laurance adds, “they have real concerns: will mom be working tomorrow, where will we be living next -- they have all these troubles in their lives. So when they come here, it's our job to make them happy and make each of their days as stress-free as possible so they are enjoying their time at school.” Laurance adds. “We know all our parents -- marital status, what country they came from, what their story is. I've been invited to a home -- and this is a home for 6 people -- so you think, ‘wow I scolded that child for not doing her homework -- I need to be truly empathetic to the kids and what's happening at home.’”
In line with this holistic approach is an appreciation of the outdoors as a part of the learning experience, and how it can integrate with community and healthy living. “A lot of thought went into building the new campus,” says Laurance. “We have outdoor education starting in kindergarten. Our new campus is full of flowers. We have a working farm where students grow and harvest vegetables -- and eat them! So we can make a connection [with] our mission statement -- that our students should be making healthy choices for body and mind.”
Technology also plays an important role in the Beechwood classroom, “When I think of technology, I think of balance,” says Laurance. “We don’t want to let these powerful machines get in the way of balance. Our staff -- 8th, 7th and 6th grade teachers -- get trained to use iPads in the class to provide that balance. It allows students to take responsibility for their own learning.”
Lastly, Principal Laurance acknowledges the dedication and hard work of his teachers. “When I think about our teachers, I think about a group united in our purpose,” Laurance says proudly. “Like our kids -- they're very happy here, very low turnover. Stress on teachers about test scores, etc. can often happen in schools -- teachers who are dissatisfied or feeling stress, no matter if they know that or not that they are stressed -- it will come out in their interactions with students. It's my job to make sure my teachers feel supported.”