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Downtown Denver Expeditionary School fosters a nurturing environment

Editor’s note: This article was written by Julia Behringer, a founding teacher at the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, which opened in 2014. Julia found her passion for teaching at an early age, and her joy to help others learn stems directly from her strong family ties. When she is not teaching, she can be found working at the nearest coffee shop, jogging around the city, and attending various sporting events.

The 2022-23 school year has felt different from any other.

The last several years have taken an emotional and mental toll on children, and educators are bearing the brunt of a society that has been living through trauma. Now more than ever, students need stability, and I’m extremely proud to work in a school that puts our students’ needs first.

I strongly believe that schools are a beautiful venue to serve the community and create a strong connection to that community. That is why I was drawn to be a founding teacher at Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, a K-5 public charter school.

More than 10 years ago, we wanted to design a learning environment that was different from the kinds of schools we attended, which felt so stifling to our own passions and dreams.

In doing so, we’ve been able to create a school that makes social-emotional learning a core component of our curriculum. This has helped us be more responsive to our students’ needs, at a time when that is especially important.

Julia Behringer with her second-grade students

In addition to traditional support from our administrative team—individualized education plans and mental health resources—we’ve also used new tools to help students focus on building meaningful relationships and processing their feelings.

During a lockdown drill in August, a child in my class jumped into my arms and was inconsolable because they thought someone was in our school to harm them. Our children’s safety is, of course, one of our highest priorities, and we’re able to help foster their sense of safety through our innovative focus on social-emotional learning.

We do this through “crew circles,” which is dedicated time for social-emotional development, or through time with our school’s therapy dog, Auggie.

Ultimately, our students’ sense of safety is just as important to their academic growth as it is to their overall mental and emotional wellbeing.

It’s also vital that our students know we nurture their passions. At Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, the city is our campus, and we bring learning to life and find ways to make it relevant to what’s happening in our communities.

This is the culture we create in our school. We love and support our students, and we encourage their interests and needs. And many times their interests and needs become our own interests and needs. We wouldn’t be able to do this if it wasn’t a part of the fabric of our school; our leadership team is intentional about supporting teachers, which in turn helps us support our students.

When I was struggling, it was my school’s leadership team who helped me prioritize my own mental health and made me feel supported. I recognize just how fortunate I am to be a part of this school culture, and how that helps me give students space to be safe and be themselves. Working at Downtown Denver Expeditionary School has kept my passion for teaching alive, and my students’ excitement for learning has inspired me to go back to graduate school to pursue my own passions.

I am so thankful I get to be a DDES crew leader. It has allowed me to foster a learning community whose members care about one another and about our community, all while engaging in deep and meaningful learning.

Despite the challenges we’ve faced the last several years and continue to face, our students want to make the world a better place—and I am better because of them.