Neighborly input key to success at University in RP
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By Mira Brody  February 28, 2014 12:00 am

For many years the former campus of La Fiesta Elementary stood vacant and gated until this past fall when University Elementary moved in, filling the halls once more with the laughter of children. The campus, says Principal Elizabeth Kaufman, is perfect for their curriculum, offering many nearby places for walking field trips – to downtown Cotati, the fire station or the many parks and creek trails in the neighborhood. It offers a close connection with the surrounding community, which is ideal, because the school was created by the inspiration of local parents.

“There were a number of parents who wanted to open a school in the district that focused on project-based learning,” says Kaufman, who began meeting with the school board to plan a model back in 2012. “We recruited parents and worked close with Sonoma State’s early childhood development program to see how it could support our ideas.” 

Kaufman, who has a background in childhood development and developmental psychology, is not only the principal of but also the assistant Superintendent of the Cotati-Rohnert Park School District. Her motivation came from a passion to create improved curriculums that promoted student thinking in a comfortable environment.

“How do you access students’ own interests in their world to help them gain confidence in reading, writing, thinking and communicating skills that they need in life?” she asks herself. Of the current curriculum, she notes: “It’s evolving as we go through. We understand what students know and they can show us they are mastering the content.”

Kaufman attributes their success to a strong parent community as well as their ties to SSU. Right now, they have a kindergarten and first grade classroom and a staff of four teachers, but will expand to a second grade classroom next year and hopefully up to fourth and fifth in a few years. They will also offer multi-age classrooms, where students can learn alongside peers of varying ages and academic levels.

While the kindergarteners focus on their local community and their role in it, the first grade program utilizes models, slideshows and performances to expand their knowledge on the rest of the world.

“Since we can’t send them all over the world, we show them slideshows, and have parents come in and act out characters,” says Kaufman. “That way they’re getting a sense of the world, either by going out and seeing it locally, or by simulating what they would be experiencing if we could go further.”

What makes University Elementary so different from other schools in the district? Aside from the hands-on project-based learning and their alliance with SSU, the elementary school is small, offering a lower student-to-teacher ratio; even after the addition of more grade levels, they will probably tapper off at two classrooms per grade, unlike most public schools.

“We’re growing, we’re viable, and we’re committed to continue growing,” says Kaufman. “And we are very grateful for all the support Rohnert Park has given us as our program grows.”

This staff’s enthusiasm puts the gloominess of school closures the city once witnessed far behind them, proving that no matter how bad it may seem, things always get brighter with the help of a community’s shared vision. As long as parents are willing to be engaged in their child’s education, University Elementary will continue to be a success.

“Children learn best in an environment where they feel safe, and welcome,” the principal says of their campus atmosphere. “Where they know the adults care about them, and they are in a community of learners that support each other. Where children feel continually involved and their involvement is fostered and supported and they can apply this knowledge to their own worlds.” 

Kaufman reminds parents that University Elementary is now in open enrollment for next school year and welcomes anyone interested to stop by to visit the campus and meet the staff.

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