Learning made fun this week at two Raleigh elementary schools

Students at two Southeast Raleigh elementary schools won’t soon forget this past week of school, which felt more like attending camp with field trips and plenty of hands-on projects.

The daily schedules for students at Barwell Road Elementary and Walnut Creek Elementary were crammed with activities such as picking pumpkins, salsa dancing and making African masks and solar ovens. This week’s activities, along with a week scheduled in January, are how both schools are using state permission to add 10 more days of classes to the school year.

“I liked this week,” said David Ruiz, 10, a fifth-grade student at Barwell. “We had fun going around the classrooms this week learning new stuff.”

Barwell and Walnut Creek were given permission by the State Board of Education to use the “restart model,” which allows lower performing traditional public schools to have the same exemptions from state rules and regulations as charter schools.

The new flexibility allowed both schools to extend the school year and to reallocate state money to help cover the cost. Barwell and Walnut Creek students will have 190 days of classes instead of the 180 days at other Wake County schools.

The two extra weeks of classes are called “learning symposiums.” The offerings differed at each school.

“It’s different from a regular school day,” said James Overman, the Wake County school system’s area superintendent for elementary support. “But you’ll see the students are truly engaged, having a good time and most importantly learning.”

The week’s theme at Walnut Creek was “reading opens the door to endless possibilities,” which saw teachers dress Monday as Captain America, Superman, Wonder Woman and other famous characters. Every class had a weeklong science project with activities such as trying to safely drop a hardboiled egg.

Walnut Creek students took science-related field trips to places such as Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh, Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill and Noah’s Landing in Coats.

Barwell students had field trips at venues such as Hill Ridge Farms in Youngsville, and Blue Jay Point and the State Capitol in Raleigh.

“We want it to be memorable for kids,” said Jonathan Hegedus, an assistant principal at Barwell. “We want them to go home and talk about it.”

In addition to individual themes for each grade level, Barwell students focused on learning about two continents.

On Thursday, a group of Barwell students learned about African drums as they played on converted vegetable cans. Elsewhere in the classroom, students learned an African dance.

Across the hall, students made pyramids out of sugar cubes under the watchful eye of fourth-grade teacher Allison Parker, who was dressed as Cleopatra.

Downstairs, students were watching a performance by the Durham-based African American Dance Ensemble.

In Barwell’s media center, the lights were off when students walked in to find re-created aboriginal caves from Australia. A recording of cave sounds helped set the mood as students made their own cave art.

“Their faces were like, ‘oh my’ when they walked in,” said Elizabeth Belois, Barwell’s art teacher.

Overman said the structure of the week means teachers can spend more time going into depth on things than they normally would have.

Tammy Carey, principal of Barwell, said they’re hoping to sprinkle in throughout the school year some of the kinds of activities that were offered this week.

“We’re really tired,” Carey said. “But it’s the best kind of tired because kids are happy and excited about learning and we’re all having a lot of fun doing it.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui