Columbia School Board considers nature-based elementary school program

Thursday, September 19, 2013 | 7:56 p.m. CDT
Mike Szydlowski, science coordinator for Columbia Public Schools, and Bill Bryan, director of Missouri State Parks, proposed a plan to build a nature-based school in Rock Bridge Memorial State Park. The proposed school would implement nature-oriented lesson plans to teach the same subjects that public schools have.

COLUMBIA — The Columbia School Board met Thursday morning to discuss the possibility of opening a nature-based school in Rock Bridge Memorial State Park. It would be an alternative program for fifth-graders interested in exploring hands-on learning in nature.

Nature-based schools work like magnet schools. They offer students the option of spending a year of their primary school education in a local, specialized school instead of in their designated home schools. The schools use nature-oriented lesson plans to teach the same subjects that public schools teach.

A nature-based school would allow fifth-graders, and possibly fourth-graders, to spend a year in a smaller setting, district spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said.

Students would apply for the program and then be chosen using a lottery system. The school would admit 100 students to the program every year to fill four classrooms.

Behind the project

Mike Szydlowski, science coordinator for Columbia Public Schools, has been working on the proposal for the nature-based school since June in hopes of finding a better way to engage students.

"Kids don’t get outside near as much anymore," Szydlowski said. "Studies show that kids who don’t get outside actually have more attention deficit problems."

Szydlowski said he thinks a nature-based education program will be a unifier in classrooms because all of the students in the program will have similar interests.

"They will have all chosen to be there," he said.

The school's curriculum would aim to include the same writing, communicating and reading programs that regular public schools offer. All students participating in the program would adhere to Common Core standards and statewide testing regulations, but the emphasis on nature would give them a unique perspective.

"If they’re studying about an invasive species at Rock Bridge State Park, they’ll be doing math and data analysis about it and studying the history of how it happened and what the government’s controls are," Szydlowski said.

A nature school's logistics

Although transportation options are still up for consideration, Szydlowski and Bill Bryan, director of Missouri State Parks, have ironed out most of the logistics of building a new school in Rock Bridge State Park.

"This is a real win-win situation for the park and for the school district," Bryan said.

The partnership would give the district and Missouri State Parks the right to use the building. When school is out of session, the park could host community programs in the school building.

The land the district is looking at has been developed before — the old barn on the property is slated for demolition — but the board raised concerns that development would hurt the park's environment.

Building a school in the park would not disrupt its ecosystem, Bryan said. Current development plans keep all park trees intact.

The other concern the board raised was monetary restrictions, but Szydlowski and Bryan seem confident that the partnership between Columbia Public Schools and Missouri State Parks, with support from community donations, would be able to fund the nature school.

"My understanding is we would be the first state park and school district partnership of this type in the nation," Bryan said.

Tentative timeline

The tentative timeline for the school construction breaks down this way:

  • October: Once financial partners have been solicited, the board reviews a project proposal in one of their its sessions.
  • November: Building designs begin.
  • December: The school begins accepting applications.
  • January: Building designs are finalized.
  • May: Building begins.
  • August: The school opens.

Similar successful programs

Springfield Public Schools uses a nature-based school called the WOLF Program — Wonders of the Ozarks Learning Facility — to teach a select group of Springfield fifth-graders the same curriculum as their peers in regular public schools but from a nature and conservation perspective.

"It gave him an outlet for his inquisitiveness," Springfield resident Beth Peters said of her son, Brock.

Brock, now a 10th-grader, participated in the WOLF Program during its first year in Springfield. The family chose to apply to the program because he really loved the outdoors, Peters said.

"He is an out-of-the-box thinker," Peters said. "This opportunity gave him the opportunity to expand himself and his learning."

Students apply to the WOLF Program in fourth grade and, if accepted, are expected to complete the entire next year at the outdoor school. WOLF teachers use outdoor activities such as park exploration to apply inquiry-based learning practices to their hands-on curriculum.

In other School Board news:

Elementary school enrollment

Unrelated to the nature-based school, the board also discussed overcrowding in elementary schools. Although the district has two new elementary schools in the works for the next three years, those projects can't come soon enough to meet the district's needs.

"We're looking for a way to cope until the new elementary school opens," Baumstark said.

With two years until the school in northeast Columbia is complete and no designated property for the southwest school, the steady rise in student enrollment has made it necessary for the board to consider other options, Baumstark said.

As of Sept. 11, Mill Creek Elementary School, one of the two schools expected to be most relieved by the southwest school, had 865 students. That's 165 students over capacity, putting classroom sizes at or above maximum capacity across all grade levels.

"The biggest thing is, we need to locate and purchase some property," Baumstark said.

In addition to finding land for a new school, board members discussed possible options to relieve Mill Creek:

  • Create a magnet school.
  • Begin looking at new boundary scenarios.
  • Add mobile classrooms to the school.
  • Use half-day kindergarten to make class sizes smaller.

Other decisions

  • The board approved amendments to the short-form master agreement originally established between Columbia Public Schools and Engineering Surveys and Services in July 2012. The changes retain engineering services with the company while it finishes roof repairs in the school district.
  • The board approved a contract with Engineering Surveys and Services for additional civil engineering services at the district's Bus Barn Site. Improvements will include facility measures such as plumbing, heating, air conditioning, electrical, structural and other mechanical work.

Next World Cafe planned

The district will host a World Cafe program called "From Cradle to Career: What Skills Do Students Need to be Successful?" to get community feedback about readiness programs in the district. The board plans to facilitate conversation about career planning for students who are either preparing for college or entering the workforce.

"Four-year programs are really important, but they're not for everyone," Superintendent Chris Belcher said. "Two-year programs are important, but they're not for everyone."

Attendees will be able to move from one table to another to participate in multiple small group discussions about the topic.

The World Cafe will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Oct. 2 at Stoney Creek Inn, 2601 S. Providence Road. Those who plan to attend are asked to make reservations by calling CPS Community Relations at 214-3960. Walk-ins are also welcome.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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