Reflecting and listening: What we can learn from the beloved Fred Rogers

Here's why building better learning spaces doesn’t have to cost much.
Tracy Vitale
Tracy Vitale
Tracy Vitale is the superintendent of the Seneca Valley School District, one of the largest public school districts in Western Pennsylvania. She launched the district’s first elementary world language program, accelerated academic rigor and lead educators in a collaborative approach to systems thinking. In 2022, she was presented with the Distinguished Educator Award by the Tri-State Area School Study Council in the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh.

As the superintendent of the Seneca Valley School District in Pittsburgh, I find myself reflecting on the approaching summer and the potential the 2023-24 school year holds for our students.

In our district, the spotlight has shone brightly on us this year. However, it is important to acknowledge that the accomplishments and achievements we have attained are the result of a collaborative effort by many. While my title may be superintendent, I make very few decisions alone; therefore, I take immense pride in the collective work we have accomplished as a diverse team.

A few years ago, we set out to construct a revolutionary school of the future that seamlessly blended the concepts of a children’s museum and a place of learning. The pandemic has undeniably taught us the importance of fostering interaction, incorporating lots of movement and play, and infusing real-world experiences into our children’s learning environments.

More from DA: My top three priorities in becoming a new superintendent—Listen, listen, listen

Our school district is close to Mister Rogers’ real-life neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where Fred Rogers first created safe havens for children over five decades ago. The book When You Wonder, You’re Learning illustrates beautifully how Rogers was deliberate in creating a space where children felt “safe, relaxed, and free to follow their interests.” This guiding principle—which has been referred to as “The Fred Method”—resonated as we collaborated with teachers, staff, students and architects, making decisions on everything from the color of the walls to the patterns in the floor tiles.

We were adamant about not starting with a cookie-cutter design. In fact, we wanted our new school—Ehrman Crest Elementary/Middle School (named by the students)—to feel more like a children’s museum than a collection of traditional classrooms. Museums have held a special place in my heart since my own childhood. Most educators also love museums which prompted our architects to partner with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. With input from a museum expert and architect, both our high school and elementary students sat side-by-side with various architects and engineers, actively sharing ideas and getting hands-on experience building a school from scratch.

Teachers helped shape the school’s design. Recognizing that children possess diverse needs, teachers offered ideas for creative, flexible instructional spaces that linked to their curriculum. Ehrman Crest’s classrooms boast colorful and comfortable furniture, movable partitions, and curved-edged desks that foster student collaboration. In many ways, it’s a digital-age page straight from Mister Rogers’ playbook: Together, we created a space full of bright, beautiful, well-made things. And as science has shown again and again, such spaces lead to better learning outcomes.

Witnessing the sheer joy and excitement on our students’ faces confirmed that our unconventional approach to this process was worth it. If there was any lingering doubt, TIME magazine removed it when the outlet recognized our school as one of the “Best Inventions of 2022.”

Reflecting on low- or no-cost lessons learned

Of course, not everyone has the resources or means to undertake projects like rooftop gardens or a “merry-go-pedal” playground structure equipped with bicycles instead of horses. But building better learning spaces doesn’t have to cost much. Here are some low- or no-cost lessons learned:

  • Collaborate with your grade band team to cultivate a cohesive look and atmosphere throughout each grade level. This allows students to share in the experience and anticipate different learning adventures each year.
  • Harness the potential of every aspect of your building, from the walls adorned with educational visuals like “unfinished” student work (to show the process of learning) to the library that extends beyond books by including donations of LEGO sets and makerspace materials.
  • Look for local partnerships with universities, colleges, businesses and nonprofits to assist in funding specific materials or supplies. Then, invite them in for ribbon cuttings or student demonstrations.
  • Explore ways to highlight and appreciate local and regional history—such as magnetic wall maps, a time capsule or mementos from an old school building.
  • Ensure all buildings have equitable learning resources. Innovative shared spaces don’t have to be identical but they should each provide unique resources and encourage creativity for all children in every building.
  • Tap into your teachers’ ideas. Then, help them find the funding!

As we approach the conclusion of this school year, I urge you to take a moment to observe your surroundings and actively listen to the voices of your teachers and students. Fred Rogers believed that “listening is one of the most important things we can do for one another.” As a matter of fact, he was always more interested in “hearing other people’s stories rather than sharing his own.”


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