Aurora School puts social and emotional learning at the center of its programs. Credit: Aurora School

Aurora School has been fostering academic strength and problem-solving abilities by putting social-emotional learning (SEL) at the core of its curriculum since it opened in 1988. And in the wake of a global pandemic, the repercussions of which are just beginning to be understood, SEL skills are more critical than ever.

“Our mission is to nurture students’ love of learning by cultivating academic excellence, emotional intelligence, and social engagement,” says Head of School Abbie Koss. “SEL is essential to that mission, and it’s fully integrated into our year-long lesson plans. It guides our K-8 students as they develop self-awareness, self-management, and interpersonal skills like empathy that are so important for happiness and success in the world.” 

To augment this approach to learning, Aurora also features multi-grade classrooms, where students in grades K/1, 2/3, 4/5, and middle school share learning spaces. Curricula alternate from year to year so nothing is repeated.

 “This creates opportunities for students to learn empathy and mentoring by alternately being in the younger or older class,” Koss says, “and, it supports learning differences and friendships across grades.”

The power of small

Aurora’s motto is “the power of small,” and Koss notes that Aurora is small by design. It’s not just about the power in children, Koss says, “But ‘the power of small’ also refers to our school as a whole. We’re a small community where everyone knows each other, and families are involved in their child’s education. Students have told us that it’s easier to connect with peers and make friends in a small and intimate setting.”

Aurora has just six homerooms in its historic building in Upper Rockridge, along with indoor and outdoor spaces for classes in STEM, drama, library, art, music, Spanish, physical education, and woodshop. It also boasts one of the largest school libraries and lowest student/teacher ratios of any East Bay independent school.  

While these trappings have always been a point of pride for Aurora, the pandemic has put their value in a new light.

Post-pandemic return

“COVID preempted so many things we took for granted, especially for children,” Koss says. “They missed birthday parties, team sports, and playdates. Some lost loved ones or experienced other family stresses and upheaval. And while we’re proud of the work we did remotely, there’s no substitute for the social structure and peer interactions that happen at school. 

Aurora’s historic campus in Upper Rockridge has outdoor areas including a play yard, the Garden Forest and an athletic field.

“We’re seeing the impacts of the pandemic on multiple levels, and we’re also seeing how SEL helps students develop resiliency and perspective as they process their reactions to everything that’s happened, and is happening. As an educator, it’s a joy to see them back on campus and engaging in this process as a community.”

With COVID restrictions slowly being lifted, this year has seen many traditions return to Aurora like Back-to-School Night in September and the Aurora Book Fair in October.

Tinker Faire on Saturday

On Nov. 12 one of Aurora’s signature events returns: The Tinker Faire, a hands-on day of science, technology, engineering, math, and art, open to the public and free.

“We love the Tinker Faire because it gives us a chance to open our doors to the larger community and show people what we do,” says Admissions Director Lisa Piccione. “We are really excited about being able to share that experience again.” She notes that it will occur in Aurora’s indoor and outdoor spaces (including the new STEM Lab, which opened this year). Activities include a vortex cannon, mini-rockets, zoetropes, drum-making, and the epic Junk-O-Rama.

Aurora’s middle schoolers study how biomimicry can aid design, building and programming prototypes for machines to dig through rubble after an earthquake. Credit: Aurora School

Student Diversity

While SEL and multigrade classrooms promote social-emotional growth, friendships, and learning, Aurora understands the need for diversity on all levels. “Twenty percent of our income goes toward supporting flexible tuition,” Piccione says, “and 30 percent of our families receive some level of support. This helps to ensure economic diversity. 

“Our staff have engaged in trainings in antiracism and restorative justice, and Aurora families join us in efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. We have affinity groups for single parents, families of color, LGBTQQ families, and others. At the end of the day, it’s just about making Aurora an accessible and welcoming community for all, and helping kids grow up into curious, compassionate, life-long learners.”

If you’d like to learn more about Aurora School or set up a campus tour or online information session, visit or call 510-428-2606. Or come to the Tinker Faire on Sat., Nov. 12, 1:30-4 p.m. on Aurora’s campus at 40 Dulwich Road, Oakland.