The Power of Place Based Education

Kathleen DeckerBlog, Differentiate Better, Engage Better, Innovate Better, Lesson Plan Better


  • Helping children to truly learn about their community and to engage in their own learning.
  • Leveraging partnerships within the community to create these learning experiences can transform learning and can yield higher levels of learning for students.

How do you create authentic learning experiences in schools? There are several ways to help students experience learning beyond the classroom. At our school we had a magnet focus, which emphasized career education and STEAM. Naturally we had a desire to teach children about a variety of jobs as well as learning how to engineer solutions and have critical problem-solving skills. We created an award-winning program through a focus on place based education.

We find a way because we know that it is an integral part of learning for our students. Click To Tweet

School Environment

One of our first steps was changing the school environment. That ensured we included earning areas outside of the classroom. We built gardens and learning labs, including a Lego room. We added tortoise habitats and fruit trees throughout the campus.

To enhance the arts we built stages outside, drum walls, and murals throughout the campus. Why? The first engaging space that students experience is right on campus.

What are the spaces on your campus that can engage learners? That inspire them to research? That make them want to learn more about something in a more authentic manner?

Guest Speakers

We had a focus on career education in our at-risk neighborhood. The students in our neighborhood have very little experience with careers beyond those of their parents or of the neighborhood itself.

We brought in speakers from around our community, so that they could learn about engineering, security, finance, jewelers, and other careers. Thankfully, we had a partnership with the Rotary Club of Las Vegas.

Bringing in experts in their field to share what their job is and what education was required to attain that career are extremely important. The students really would have no way of learning about these jobs without our assistance.

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Outside of School Learning Trips

We focused on trips that would enhance our theme of STEAM and help our students understand their community. We had partnerships with many of the local hotels and took many students on trips to tour them.

I know what you are thinking… What can they learn from a hotel?

At the Flamingo Hotel, we took second grade students on a trip to learn all about the operations of a hotel, the job of the animal care giver, a tour of a huge suite, and an animal survival activity on the grass. Students rotated through stations to experience all of the activities at the property. They interacted with staff to learn their standards in a hands-on way. Students were able to see the many supplies and people needed to organize them and keep things running smoothly. They learned about many different career opportunities.

With older students we had the Human Resources manager conduct interviews and teach them how to have a successful interview. They conducted mock interviews with their employees as well and shared career opportunities.

Managers even brought down the grandmother of one of our students who worked there and praised her for her service. They brought forward possibilities and pride to the students. We had an entire grade level in the theater for this experience and we had an incredibly high level of engagement from the students.

Involve Your Community

Experiences outside such as Junior Achievement’s Biztown, San Diego museums and the beach, the Grand Canyon… They all contribute to the learning of our students. These are things we can not accomplish within the confines of the school.

Look around your community and think about opportunities that would share inspiration for your students. Think beyond your local community and take a road trip. When we travel out of state, we have our students sleep on the floor of science museums, which is extremely safe. Our school raises money through fundraisers and grants from local organizations and our Rotary club.

We find a way because we know that it is an integral part of learning for our students.

About Kathleen Decker

Kathleen Decker has been an educator for the past 29 years. She has developed an award winning magnet program that transformed Walter Bracken STEAM Academy. When Ms. Decker was appointed principal in 2001, Walter Bracken was one of the lowest performing schools in the district. Over the years, the program has received national, state, and local recognition. The Clark County School District was so impressed by the success at Walter Bracken; they franchised the program to two more underperforming schools and made Ms. Decker the principal of all three. Over the years she has focused on sustainability to ensure the school’s mission and vision live long past her tenure.

Ms. Decker is most know for her sustainability by leveraging the community and building partnerships. She is passionate about school culture and climate. Ms. Decker has presented at several national conferences on building a school theme, starting a reading series program, giving students choice through explorations, using gardens in schools, and promoting financial literacy. She has mentored many educators and will continue to work towards creating engaging opportunities for students in the future.