*CORRECTION: MU graduate teaching assistant Justin Arft's son Henry is 2. A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the child's age.
COLUMBIA — Leaves crunched beneath Mike Szydlowski’s feet as he took a step toward a line of oaks and hickories in Rock Bridge Memorial State Park.
"The students would be able to take advantage of the state park trails every week, several times a week," said Szydlowski, science coordinator for Columbia Public Schools. "We're just 15 or 20 yards away from trailheads here."
Szydlowski walked the plot of land in the northwestern corner of the state park, which could be the site of Columbia’s first nature-based school.
"This site used to be a big barn," he said, his right hand spanning across the empty field. "That has been torn down, and an adjacent building will be torn down as well. On one side of the school will be four regular classrooms and the other will have a wet lab and storage."
The proposed nature school and a proposed "community school" — which would partner a new school with local agencies to provide students in at-risk situations access to academic, health and social development resources — reflect a move toward innovation in education happening in districts throughout the state and nation.
"Alternative education" or "innovative education," described as a learner-centered approach, has gained traction in recent years to combat the one-size-fits-all state of education in America, said Jerry Mintz, director of Alternative Education Resource Organization. The national nonprofit was founded by Mintz in 1989 to advance student-driven, learner-centered approaches to education.
The traditional form of public education was created for the 1800s, Mintz said, during a time when students were supposed to follow orders and were not encouraged to be creative.
"Education is still geared toward that," Mintz said. "People recognize the traditional system doesn't work for most kids. That's why alternative education has been created."
Momentum for innovative education
A partnership between Columbia Public Schools and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources would fund the $1.2 million expected cost of building the nature-based school, with one-third of the total paid by Columbia Public Schools, said Jonathan Sessions, Columbia School Board member.
The school board has not found another district that has partnered with a state park, Sessions said. He said he thinks it would be the first of its kind.
The board will vote on partnering with the department and continuing with the building plans at a meeting Monday evening.
If the partnership were passed, the nature school would hold 100 fifth-grade students in four classrooms. It would join the ranks of Benton, Lee and Ridgeway elementary schools as alternatives to the traditional classroom setting in Columbia.
Benton offers a science, technology, engineering and mathematics centered learning (STEM) approach, according to the Columbia Public Schools website. Lee is an expressive arts school. Ridgeway uses an individually guided education program that places students in instructional groups based on personal assessment of the students in each subject.
"The community and nature-based schools are dramatically different concepts, but they come out of the same driver as our other alternative schools, to provide choices," Sessions said. "We want students to have the opportunity to learn and enjoy what they're learning because they feel connected. That's what alternative schools offer, and it's why I'm intrigued by them."
Whether the community school becomes a reality will be determined by the strategic planning that will take place this coming year, said Peter Stiepleman, who will take over as superintendent of Columbia Public Schools on July 1.
"What I can tell you is that districts all over the country are considering community schools," Stiepleman said. "Springfield, Missouri, for example, has just opened one."
Robberson Community School opened in Springfield Public Schools in 2012, said Christine Jones, a specialist in choice and innovation for Springfield Public Schools.
The community school is one of several new initiatives in Springfield designed to create innovation in learning, Jones said. A health science classroom housed in a Springfield hospital and an "Academy of Exploration" at the Discovery Center of Springfield will both hold classes for the first time in August, she said.
Six years ago, Springfield Public Schools launched the Wonders of the Ozarks Learning Facility (WOLF), which instructs 46 fifth-graders in the context of nature and conservation education, Jones said, similar to what the nature-based school would offer Columbia.
"The success of the WOLF program has built the momentum in Springfield to partner with the community to create innovative learning," Jones said. "We've learned that we can't do it alone, but that we need partners."
In Columbia, parents have made it clear that they are interested in innovative schools, Stiepleman said.
"The number of families applying to go to Benton, Lee, and Ridgeway tell us that families want offerings in addition to their neighborhood schools," Stiepleman said. "The nature school has generated a great deal of interest and families have begun asking the district to consider a language immersion school."
Justin Arft, an MU graduate teaching assistant and father of two, said he is excited for his boys to attend Columbia Public Schools with the nature school proposal on the horizon.
"My son is a different person when he is outside," Arft said of his 2-year-old*, Henry. "Choices in the way our kids are educated allows parents to be more active in the learning process. I want to know on a daily basis what my son is getting excited about and what he is struggling with."
Columbia School Board President Christine King said there needs to be more discussion about the nature-based school before she can decide whether to support it.
"I have reservations of the cost compared to the number of kids who will benefit," King said. "There have not been any plans or cost benefit analysis presented to the Board of Education for discussion and consideration."
King said she is also concerned it will be difficult to collect research-based data to measure how much the students will gain or benefit from the school.
"Choice is good within public education, but you have to be able to look and see how it’s working or not working," King said. "I want to be mindful of the fact we are working with public dollars."
When the Columbia School Board sets the tax rate this summer, Sessions said, there will be a surplus in the capital projects fund that will allow the board to move two cents from its capital to its operational budget, generating the $400,000 needed for the nature school building without impacting other capital projects.
"This is money we didn't expect to have, which means we're not having to eliminate or underfund another program to pay for the building," Sessions said. "We'll be moving, not adding teachers. Of course there will be nominal costs to a new building, but it's not like opening a new elementary."
King said she is not convinced the full cost for the school has come out, such as how much transportation for the students to and from the new building would cost.
"I need these hard details before I can say it is financially worth it," King said. "It is difficult to measure the effectiveness of something that only lasts one year. There is no way to say what the impact would be, and that may be fine, because enrichment isn't always measurable."
Place-based education, such as a nature school, takes advantage of local resources to ground curriculum and engagement, said David Sobel, project director at Antioch New England Institute and author, whose works have helped develop the philosophy of place-based education.
While a common criticism of place-based or innovative education is it is hard to measure the impact it has on students, Sobel said, there are studies on place-based education and academic achievement that shows this type of approach causes test scores to increase.
Sobel said examples can be found on the Place-Based Education Evaluation Collaborative website, including a 2000 report published by the National Environmental Education Training Foundation.
The reading and math scores of elementary students in environment-based education, defined as a natural way to integrate the curriculum around issues of interest to students and teachers, improved significantly in comparison to students in traditional education, according to the report.
"And there are other things being accomplished, such as developing civic responsibility and improving the environment," Sobel said. "These accomplishments are less tangible than what you may find in traditional education, but are significant."
Showing an understanding of a concept and being able to apply it to new ideas and situations is more important in today's education, because it is more important in today's world than just acquiring facts, said Amy Duncan, who has taught science at Smithton Middle School for 15 years.
"We need different things from education than we did when the system we have been using was developed," said Duncan, who said she would be honored to teach at the nature-based school if it opened. "Facts can be ‘Googled.’ People need to be able to use the facts to solve problems and make the world a better place to live."
Szydlowski said he thinks innovative education will play a bigger role in Columbia in the future, with less and less emphasis on big, traditional schools.
"I have been in mainstream education for a long time and didn't have an opinion on alternative education," said Szydlowski, gesturing again toward the trees of Rock Bridge State Park. "I wouldn't have thought of sending my kids to a school like this one. But now I would. The No. 1 thing we can do wrong is bore the kids. That's what we have to fix."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.