The City Becomes the Classroom at St. Peter’s School
How the City Curriculum is changing the shape—and place—of learning at St. Peter’s.
Since 1834, St. Peter’s School’s prime location on the 300 block of Lombard Street has been a draw for city families—and being the only independent school in Old City that spans preschool through eighth grade, they are in a unique position in more ways than one. But for a visionary group of educators, the school’s storied history, real estate, and excellent reputation are not laurels to rest upon—rather, they present an invitation to connect students with the city at large and take advantage of the opportunities around them.
“We want our students to get out of the classroom, and in fact get out of the building, as often as possible,” says Will Nord, Director of Third through Eighth Grades. The City Curriculum at St. Peter’s School has been a success in expanding the boundaries and minds of SPS students, Nord tells us. “[They are] learning real life, getting out in the community, and learning from experts in the field.”
The goal of the program is not to have “one-off” field trips, but rather to form meaningful relationships with our rich city institutions, connect lessons learned in the classroom to real world experiences, and help students become active participants in the larger community. “Research shows that is how students learn best,” Nord explained. “Knowledge is built on previous experiences, so if you’re learning something cold without those previous experiences, there’s nothing to latch onto.”
As students rise through the school, they can also draw upon these connections when it comes time for their Independent Study Projects in fifth through eighth grades. In this way, the City Curriculum not only reinforces classroom lessons, but also inspires students to discover and pursue their passions as they grow beyond the classroom.
Science teacher Laura Bader has taken the reins of the City Curriculum program as its Director. Leading the way for her colleagues, she has worked to create a comprehensive database that SPS teachers can access, which matches current and potential lesson plans with community resources based on past school trips—as well as her ongoing research into city happenings.
Bader’s enthusiasm is palpable when she describes those special moments when coursework and city complement and drive each other: “I want the kids to be well-versed if they see something out in the city.”
She relates one example, growing out of her unit on water conservation and the urban watershed. For this unit, getting outside meant not only visiting sites like Fairmount Water Works and Independence Seaport Museum—both of which are doing wonderful outreach to educate young people about our watershed—but also taking simple walks around the city to observe storm drains and see what runoff looks like in an urban setting.
Later in the year, when on a seemingly unrelated trip for a different unit, a student independently pointed out the different parts of the watershed they were noticing to Bader. As lessons build on each other, students naturally form these mental connections, reinforcing knowledge and curiosity along the way. “If you teach them what’s actually around them,” Bader explains, “they will come to see what they are learning in school right out on the streets in Philadelphia.”
Profile by Laura Swartz. Photography by Abbe Foreman
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