Teachers and community members from Centralia to southern Boone County came to Columbia on Friday afternoon for a planning meeting about a new nature school.

Columbia Public Schools officials held a meeting at the Aslin Administration Building to collect ideas and suggestions about what would be around the school on the 207 acres of land adjacent to the Three Creeks Conservation Area.

Hank Waters and his wife, Vicki Russell, former publishers of the Columbia Daily Tribune, donated the site to the Missouri Department of Conservation for the project.

The school building, which will consist of four classrooms and lab space, is set to open for the 2021-22 school year, but some classes will be taking field trips to the area beginning this spring.

“What we’re going to be teaching here is called place-based education,” said Mike Szydlowski, Columbia Public Schools science coordinator.

“We’re going to teach the exact same standards that would be in any school. However, we’re going to teach it from a local to global lens.”

This means class content will focus first on Columbia and Boone County, he said. The curriculum will begin looking at a local topic, such as the local ecosystem, and then expand to national and global aspects, like ecosystems in other continents.

“What we hope the kids get out of this is it’s not just learning about trees,” he said. “It’s learning about their whole place, and what they will leave with is, hopefully, a civic duty to want to make their place better. You’re learning about what you can do as one person to make it a better place.”

The reaction from the community at the meeting was “overwhelmingly positive,” CPS Superintendent Peter Stiepleman said.

Andrew Crawford, media specialist for Eliot Battle Elementary School and a former fifth-grade teacher, likes the community’s ability to provide feedback on the project.

“It’s not a closed-door thing, like this is what we’re going to do,” Crawford said. “They want input from everybody.”

The input has been incredibly helpful, according to Stiepleman and Szydlowski.

Suggestions during the meeting included more accessible trails, water sources deeper into the property for student to refill water bottles, learning gardens and solar panels.

Accessibility of the land is one area which drew a lot of interest from community members, including Troy Balthazor, CEO of TPB Enterprises and Columbia resident.

“I want to see how they accommodate accessibilities, both structurally and programmatically,” Balthazor said.

Szydlowski said the district will rent the land for $1 per year for 40 years.

The project will cost between $4 million and $4.5 million, he said. The Department of Conservation provided $1 million for infrastructure like roads, and the district provided $2 million.

Szydlowski said the rest of the money will come from private donors.

This is the district’s second attempt at a nature school. The first school was supposed to open in 2014, but efforts stalled because of funding, Szydlowski said.

“Looking back, we are so happy the first school failed,” he said. “This nature school’s going to be so much better thanks to what we’ve learned over the past five years.”

Roger Still, who is in charge of fundraising for the project, said his work will begin after the final cost estimate is complete in March.

He thinks the school presents an opportunity not only for the students but the community.

“It will be unique in the state, and it has the potential to be a national model,” he said.

  • Education reporter, fall 2019 Studying print and digital journalism Reach me at kadthd@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700

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