Cover Stories

Strong Roots: Community School

In 1914, the founders of Community School had a vision for educating the next generation. In order to create a less rigid environment and better engage students in the adventure of learning, they drafted ten guiding principles for the school to follow. Now, more than 100 years later, the independent elementary and preschool in Ladue fosters the intellectual, emotional and creative growth of students by continuing to adhere to those foundational tenets. Among them is the idea that education should “open a child’s eyes to the wonders of nature, the stars, the universe and the world around them.”

Situated on 18 acres, Community School offers students several opportunities to explore the natural world. From a pond and nature trails to a one-of-kind treehouse classroom in the woods, there are a variety of environments for them to play and learn in. “We firmly believe that education should be hands-on and child-centered,” head of school Bob Cooke explains. “There’s a big difference between actively applying lessons and listening to a lecture. The former is a much better way to foster long-term learning. Anyone who has ever crammed for a test is aware that you may remember the information the next day, but it’s usually gone within a month.”

Tracy Malke, who specializes in science for grades 1 and 2, uses the school’s outdoor spaces to teach a unit on animals in the fall and one on plants in the spring. The school’s natural resources allow the students to behave more like scientists, exploring hands-on, making observations and answering questions. “For children, terminology like ‘vertebrate’ and ‘invertebrate’ are very abstract, but walking the nature trails can help make them more concrete,” she notes, recalling a student who was able to identify that a cicada exoskeleton came from an invertebrate. “It’s amazing to watch them make connections to what they learn in the classroom. These discoveries are an everyday occurrence, not something that happens only once a year on a field trip.”

The school’s outdoor spaces are used by students of all ages. Nursery teacher Becky Ritter-Loos recently started using the treehouse classroom for yoga lessons. “So much of yoga is inspired by the outdoors, and the treehouse is a space where the students can be surrounded by nature, making it perfect for that type of calming activity and developing socioemotional skills,” she says. “Having these spaces teaches kids that the outdoors is a peaceful and creative space and allows for unique and exciting learning opportunities. In this age of technology, appreciating and seeing the possibilities of nature is an important skill.”

This year, Community School’s nature-centered approach has been more important than ever. When planning for the health and safety of students, school officials knew its outdoor spaces would be critical to preventing the spread of COVID-19. Along with the treehouse classroom, tents were set up to hold lessons outdoors. “Community School already benefits from an educational philosophy that keeps our students in nature,” Cooke says. “Teams of teachers, administrators and parents worked to ensure that we could open safely. We are proud that our students have been able to return to school. It’s where children should be.

Community School is an independent elementary school and preschool for ages 3 through grade six. It believes in fostering the intellectual, emotional and creative growth of students to encourage their development as leaders of the next generation. Pictured on the cover: Senior kindergarten students with teacher Kara Horton. For more information, call 314.991.0005 or visit

Cover design by Julie Streiler
Cover photo by Colin Miller of Strauss Peyton Photography

Pictured at top: Marieann Barratt, science specialist for grades three and four, works with third graders. 
Photo: Colin Miller of Strauss Peyton Photography


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