Rowland Hall’s Beginning School is a cozy, welcoming place buzzing with the distinctive energy of active, engaged students. “One of my very favorite things is that on any given day in the Beginning School you can almost always count on getting to walk around and see young children working together at something they care deeply about,” said Emma Wellman, who just finished her first year as the division’s principal. “They are experimenting and they are failing. They are problem-solving and working through tension and conflict together, and making a mess, and being too loud—and it’s just the best ever.”
They are experimenting and they are failing. They are problem-solving and working through tension and conflict together, and making a mess, and being too loud—and it’s just the best ever.—Beginning School Principal Emma Wellman
Emma joined Rowland Hall from the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, known colloquially as Lab, where she most recently served as interim director of the Extended Day Program. After five years at Lab as both a teacher and an administrator, working with hundreds of children from ages three through 13, she was ready for a more intimate experience in the next chapter of her career. “I wanted to work at a place where I could know all the children and the families,” she explained. “And I wanted to work with professional teachers—people who have chosen it for their life’s work and were really committed and dedicated deep thinkers.”
From day one, Emma has been sure of her choice. “Every day this school year, I have woken up and felt huge gratitude that I get to be part of this community,” she said. “There is a deep respect for young children as people and as learners, and that’s really important to me. The teachers are genuinely interested in who these little people are and what is happening in their minds and in their hearts.”
Emma’s own commitment to students and the wider Rowland Hall community meant that the top item on her first-year agenda was connecting with students, parents, faculty, and staff because those relationships would set the foundation for success. She wanted to know the students, and their families, by name. “An early goal for myself was knowing all of the names of the children—and I did that by Back to School Night,” she said.
She went into Beginning School classrooms to discover each team’s curriculum, learning style, and personality, as well as how faculty members like to be supported. A self-described developmentalist, she also engaged her professional background to help provide age-appropriate activities and lessons. “I believe all people are becoming,” she said, stressing the importance of actively engaging children at their level so they discover how to learn—and enjoy the journey.
Emma has seen this approach working in the Beginning School. She described watching a kindergartener experimenting with how to make a ball roll from one end of a complicated ramp structure to the other. “It was really tricky, this route he had made, with lots of hills and so forth,” she explained. The setup required him to continuously step back to examine the design and to make adjustments, from the height of slopes to the size of the ball.
“It went on for a long, long time—and then he got it to work, and that was amazing. So exciting! Then he got it to work another time, and his comment was, ‘After it works it’s boring,’” she laughed. “And I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope you hold onto that for the rest of your life,’ that the process of figuring it out is the good stuff.”
Moving into her second year at Rowland Hall, Emma wants to build upon the work already underway. She’ll enrich the relationships she built this year and continue to give students developmentally appropriate opportunities. Over the summer, she’ll take what she has learned from students, families, and teachers and map out a community-centered plan for 2019–2020 that will include enhancing outdoor play spaces; strengthening the snack policy that prioritizes healthy, nutritious, whole foods; reflecting on the school’s accreditation self-study; thinking deeply about parent communications; and soaking in knowledge from Alan Sparrow—whom Emma describes as “a wise and wonderful leader”—during his final year as head of school.
Whatever the next year holds, it’s clear that Emma will be fully focused on supporting Rowland Hall’s youngest students as they discover their love of learning and start to think critically, take risks, solve problems, and collaborate with others. “This is the stuff of learning,” she said.