Loess Hills Specialty School Presents a New Way of Learning

Students at Loess Hills Elementary School navigate their peers through a maze in P.E. class with computer code, record videos of themselves reading to show their fluency and create computer quizzes to demonstrate they understand mathematical concepts such as fractions.

Before Loess Hills Elementary School opened in the fall of 2014, principal John Beeck said he and former Sioux City Community Schools technology director Neil Schroeder sought to transform the school, which combined Emerson and Roosevelt elementary schools, into something “new” and “unique.” They came up with the idea to make it a specialty school where students would learn to communicate, collaborate, think critically and create through computer programming

“We couldn’t look it up in a manual any place. We couldn’t Google it, because nobody’s done it,” Beeck said of the computer programming specialty concept, which was woven through the entire curriculum at Loess Hills Elementary School by the spring of 2015.

Technology consultant teacher Layne Henn works with fifth-grade students at Loess Hills Elementary School, a computer programming specialty school.

Technology consultant teacher Layne Henn works with fifth-grade students at Loess Hills Elementary School, a computer programming specialty school.

Sioux City superintendent Paul Gausman said the district has a process for staff members to develop specialty concepts for elementary schools. He said faculty must thoroughly research their concept, which has to retain the teaching of the Iowa Core subjects — math, science, social studies and language arts, draft a plan to implement it and then share that plan with the community. He said 85 percent of staff members at the elementary school have to agree with the specialty concept, which also must be approved by the school board.

“Loess Hills is unique in that they did not have another school they were using as a template somewhere else in the country,” Gausman said. “At that time, we knew of no other computer science immersion schools or computer coding schools in the nation. They were pioneers in that.”

Peek into classrooms at Loess Hills Elementary School and you’ll see students staring at screens while wearing clunky pairs of headphones or seated at desks arranged in circles typing on laptops.

When Beeck and Schroeder were considering the specialty school concept, Beeck said “computer programming” was a buzzword in education, as students involved in before- and after-school clubs were experimenting with coding. Beeck and Schroeder decided to take the idea a step further by integrating computer programming into all subjects taught at Loess Hills Elementary School.

“Let’s see if using that could help us teach math better or teach reading better and all of the other subjects,” Beeck said. “Let’s teach kids how to program because all jobs, all professions, everything is kind of controlled by computers and technology. Let’s teach our kids about that, which might give them a leg up in the job market later on.”

His future job prospects were on 11-year-old Remy Rowe’s mind as he sat in fifth-grade teacher Cindy Bigbee’s classroom writing computer code with CodeCombat, a platform that teaches students computer science through a game. In order to find, attack and defeat the blue ogres lurking in a stone castle, Remy noted that he has to use good punctuation and remember to capitalize letters while coding.