Elementary School

Our growing elementary school is an exciting place! We challenge students with a rich, authentic, and rigorous curriculum relevant to the group and responsive to individual strengths and abilities. We inspire students to:

  • Learn through direct experience and hands-on exploration that taps into natural curiosity.
  • Work collaboratively with peers to communicate, negotiate, problem solve, and create.
  • Take risks in a challenging, supportive environment.
  • Engage with the broader community through service learning projects, field trips, guest experts and correspondence with local and global neighbors.

Students acquire the essential skills of reading, writing, mathematics, effective communication (in both Mandarin and English), and problem solving, and they will use technology in support of this learning. They tap into their creative potential through the arts and find joy in play and movement. Students will develop the skills essential to success in all academic endeavors and will come to understand how they learn best.

Learning Through Inquiry

For a long time “curriculum” meant giving young people pieces of knowledge. We assumed that they had put this knowledge securely in their pockets (and their minds) if they passed tests of recall and recognition. But long ago, Plato knew that this type of knowledge ebbs away. Some of it sticks with us even to adulthood, but even then, it seems to sit on a mental shelf waiting for something to do.
At Presidio Knolls, we give our students a set of conceptual tools to solve the many ethical, analytical, logistical, and creative problems they will encounter in life. We organize this through units of exploration. Our units of exploration integrate language and linguistic constructs around meaningful math, science, and social science concepts. Each unit last approximately four to six weeks and culminates in students designing and presenting a project that shows their interpretation of what they have learned. 

For example, our children learned vividly and meaningfully about math, science, architecture, and social studies when they studied public spaces and their special features such as bioswales, gardens, and sitting areas. To continue their inquiry, they explored geometry, mathematics, economics, and human behavior by presenting how they might design their own classroom, school, or playground. In the process they measured, sketched, modeled, and analyzed existing sites, and they met with professionals who work in architecture and design. This type of learning stays with a child forever. 


Social-Emotional Learning

Social-emotional learning is central to the elementary school program at Presidio Knolls. Our teachers and specialists hold daily community sessions with students to discuss emerging topics and the best way to handle them collectively.

Our school counselor leads mindfulness learning, and we have devised an innovative set of lessons that focus on self-control, understanding your emotions and the emotions of others, boundaries, standing up for yourself and others, and remaining calm in the face of frustration or distraction.

Each week students come together as a community to sing, role play social interactions, and celebrate being a caring community. Elementary students also experience cross-grade level mentoring through participation in yearlong “family” or “jiating” groups.

The Role of the Teacher

The teacher in an inquiry-based immersion program is a creative collaborator with his or her colleagues working side by side to design meaningful learning experiences. Rather than simply following a textbook, teachers continually seek to build higher-level thinking and find connections for students between the real world and the classroom.

In designing units of exploration, the teacher’s job is to scope and sequence educational milestones for the unit, then help students establish what they know and want to know. This type of teaching requires ongoing engagement and iteration, and makes the classroom a joyful and energetic place.

Mandarin Immersion

Mandarin immersion comprises 80% of academic time during the elementary years at Presidio Knolls School. Students experience a balanced literacy approach that includes reading, writing, speaking, and listening beginning in kindergarten. 

As part of each day, we devote an hour of class time to direct instruction in Mandarin literacy, including character recognition, reading, and writing. In addition, unlike traditional 50/50 Mandarin-English models, the PKS program instills a deeper understanding and appreciation of Chinese language through inquiry-based units of exploration, all of which are conducted in Mandarin. By learning and using language for authentic purposes, chiefly through the units of exploration, students don’t just study language -- they live it.

In fifth grade, our students travel to China to extend and deepen their academic work, and to develop a rich, nuanced sense of the country, themselves, and an abiding desire for a sense of place.

To measure progress, we assess our children’s Mandarin skills through performance assessments and demonstrations of speaking, listening, reading, and writing in order to develop a plan for each individual.

English Language Arts

Students receive one hour a day of English instruction. 

Kindergarten - Grade 2

In the lower grades, we approach the teaching of writing holistically and joyously. Children progress through emergent literacy stages into becoming independent writers, engaging with the written word with confidence. Through shared and independent writing projects, children are exposed to a variety of genres that include both narrative and non-narrative structures. Students begin to return to their written pieces for the purpose of revising and editing. Our youngest writers write signs, letters, lists, information books, persuasive notes, poetry, and stories. A strong emphasis is placed on writing with purpose and audience in mind. Students share their writing with their peers, the community, and with their parents during student-led conferences. Writing mechanics, spelling, and handwriting instruction are based on students’ strengths and needs, and are taught through mini-lessons, shared writing, and individual writing conferences.

PKS uses a balanced literacy approach to building reading skills in English. This consists of reading workshop, small group and individualized work, word study, shared reading, and read-alouds. An emphasis is placed on developing skill and independence based on individual reading levels. Students are given guidance and are encouraged to choose books independently for their daily reading in school and at home. Specific reading skills and strategies taught are determined by the strengths and needs of each student. Explicit instruction is provided through small group lessons and individual reading conferences.

Grade 3 - 5

In the upper grades, students work to solidify ownership of the writing process: from brainstorming to drafting, editing and revising, and ultimately publishing. Throughout the writing process, students work independently, with peers, and one-on-one with a teacher to receive feedback and to refine their work. Students study and produce work in various genres of writing including fiction, non-fiction, expository writing, and poetry. Regardless of the genre, there is an emphasis on clear, concise, and organized writing that develops in sophistication as students progress.

Students continue to develop their engagement in reading through independent book selections, and assigned readings related to the Units of Exploration. Students meet regularly with the English teacher to conference about their independent reading. These sessions focus on comprehension strategies such as retelling of the story, predicting, and making personal connections to the text. Students in the upper grades are challenged to summarize what they are reading, as well as identify main ideas and themes, discover cause and effect, make inferences, predict outcomes, and, ultimately, ascertain what the purpose of the text is.


Elementary students devote one period of school each day to math studies conducted in Mandarin. During this time, students engage in the study of rigorous mathematics concepts and thought-provoking mathematics lessons. But STEM learning doesn’t end when math class is over. Science, technology, engineering, and math are a central part of the elementary school units of exploration. Indeed, our integrated project-based approach is the best way to introduce children to these subjects, foster true understanding, and develop a lifelong passion for learning. Our dedicated STEM teacher collaborates with classroom teachers to highlight STEM learning activities during each unit of exploration.

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We believe that formative and summative assessments should also be modeled on the kinds of things we most frequently have to do in navigating our lives, including:

  • Writing what we think in various modes
  • Demonstrating learning through a project or presentation
  • Problem solving with a team
  • Creating solutions and evaluating the efficacy of solutions according to criteria
  • Debating alternatives
  • Sharing knowledge and understanding through different media
  • Designing, constructing, and showing artistic expression              
  • Listening carefully
  • Reflecting on our own work

The growth and development of children happens in spurts and lulls, in peaks and plateaus. It is fairest and most telling to assess them on developmental continua, and to consider any periodic assessments as snapshots in time.

With this in mind, assessment at Presidio Knolls School is used to measure the real evidence of students’ learning. We draw from authentic sources of information that help students establish what they know, what they want or need to know, and how to self-reflect on what they have learned. It is widely understood that we all possess multiple intelligences, so it is fitting that we assess through such varied means. 

Students in upper elementary experience assessment that measures their progress as compared to themselves over the year using the Measures of Academic Progress assessment (MAP). This assessment will provide parents comparative data on their child’s progress, and it also provides information to make decisions regarding needs for support or challenge.

Art, Music and Physical Education

Art, music, and physical education are an important part of daily life at Presidio Knolls.

Students dance, sing, and play musical instruments under the direction of an experienced trained Orff instructor. Students also experience music via weekly assemblies, field trips to concerts and performances, and guest musicians on campus.
Visual arts are an integral part of life and provide an important way for children to connect with their ideas and feelings. Art is a part of each child’s growth and development beginning at preschool. Children experience visual arts in all media as they learn and express themselves using the tools and ideas of artists. They also learn about how people express themselves in different ways as they learn the stories of art from different times and many cultures. Arts are also intentionally integrated into the inquiry experiences via units of exploration.

Being physically active each day is important not only for a child’s spirit, but also their intellectual growth. Students learn to enjoy sports and build important lifelong skills by engaging in games and team sports under the guidance of dedicated physical education instructors.


Photos: parent volunteers and John Lee