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Education ~ think unique!

08/30/2013 02:19PM ● Published by Nancy Babin

Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is how Albert Einstein defined “insanity.”  So if I were to tell you that the United States’ ranking of math and science scores is falling lower and lower, what would you suggest?  Out of 34 developed countries, the United States ranked 25th in math, 17th science and 14th in reading. The test group subjects were age 15. Certainly we must change the way we approach teaching and learning at the middle and high school levels. Locals here On The Coast are blessed with many great schools, but three distinct schools are striving for different results for our students!

At first glance, Seaside Middle School is reminiscent of the one-room school houses that dotted the landscape of early America. It is located in the little town of Seaside, made famous by the 1998 movie, The Truman Show. In fact, the money received by the town for its use in filming led to the creation of Seaside Middle School. 

Three individuals instrumental to the success of Seaside and passionate about “removing the box” and encouraging teachers and students to “go deep into the learning” are Cathy Brubaker, Kim Mixson and Jonathon D’Avignon. They have been together for many years, continually striving for excellence and uncovering new ways of teaching, integrating and achieving more. 

Cathy Brubaker, who has been with the school since 1999 and school principal for six years, stepped back last year to become the Director of Program Development and assist in the expansion of Seacoast High School. Kim Mixson has been with the Seaside Neighborhood School for 15 years.  She strives to enhance the learning environment through community partnerships by spearheading a mentoring program that pairs students with successful community members for one-on-one guidance, accountability, inspiration and motivation.   Jonathon D’Avignon taught at Seaside for many years. Last year he was with South Walton High School serving as their assistant principal, preparing himself to take on the role of principal for the Seaside high school expansion, Seacoast Collegiate High School. He is confident about the coming success of Seacoast and its students because the model is based on the model at Seaside.

One of the most amazing things about Seaside/Seacoast is the faculty. Students taking art study under the expert tutelage of world-renowned artists like 30A’s own Billie Gaffrey, gallery owner and accomplished artist, as well as Julie Martin, who spent time studying fine art in Cortona, Italy as an undergrad and who ran a successful national artistically-centered business before joining Seaside. Students are required to take art, music and PE or Dance each year. Dance is taught by either Andrea Alfieri, whose years of professional broadway experience has taken her to stages across the globe, or Ballet Mistress Seleta Hayes Howard. Ms. Howard spent time in front of the camera as an on-air host at FOX in Atlanta and now uses her 12 years of classical and lyrical ballet training to pour into her students, teaching them confidence, poise and athleticism through dance.

But don’t be fooled by the art, music and dance. Seaside Neighborhood School has a math and science department that competes against area and regional robotics teams. Through a partnership of mentors from Eglin AFB, Seaside middle schoolers build a robot and compete with area high schoolers. Winners go to the regional competition at Auburn. And it’s the entire school that participates as one, whether in design of the robot, programming, posters, displays, manning the presentation booth, public speaking or spirit and sportsmanship.  It is a unified school effort. 
With its gorgeous location and exceptional views of the gulf, students and staff alike consider going to Seaside like none other around. As Janet Murphy, mother of a 7th, 8thand 9thgrader explains, “My kids are happy. They feel like they are going to camp every day.” The small class sizes, the bonding exercises, and the community partnerships set Seaside above the rest in their eyes!

Ohana means “family” and from the moment you cross through the front doors of this quaint private school located in Rosemary Beach, you are family. With its tastefully decorated rooms full of plump couches, numerous floor pillows and inviting nooks and crannies, students don’t feel like they are in a classroom, but in a swank lounge or best friend’s living room.

The founder and inspiration behind O.I. is Mrs. Lettye Burgtorf. After moving to the area eight years ago, Lettye’s search for other homeschool moms and public school alternatives left her empty. She therefore worked tirelessly to create a school outside the norm where students are encouraged to “experience the different” and where the focus is on the student first, instilling confidence, team building and independent study, opening the door for a passion for learning. 

Students start the year off with “Camp Ohana” where time is given for the students to get to know each other. This team building is essential in the co-op mentality of cooperative learning. Students work together on projects and each student is required to complete musical components where they have an opportunity to perform at the end of the semester. Whether experienced in music or not, each team of students, through cooperative learning and problem-solving development, divides up tasks from coming up with a band name, marketing the group, album cover design and photography layout, to musical components of singing and playing at least one original song and two cover songs. This is all done under the expertise of accomplished musician Jonathan Mitchell, who acts as a band manager, giving direction and helping the students define their roles. He gently guides rather than pushes and smiles when he talks about the “magic” that happens naturally as the students establish natural leadership and problem-solving roles within each band.

Unlike the charter school of Seaside/Seacoast, O.I. is an independent, fully accredited private school. Similar to Seaside/Seacoast, O.I. offers students a personalized learning curriculum. It currently has 77 students from grades 5 – 12 the guidance of eight full-time staff members and several more volunteers. Ohana Institute provides a world-class education that prepares students for higher education, productive careers, and constructive citizenship.

STEMM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine. The STEMM Academy is a school that offers a curriculum focused on those five areas of specific study. It opened its doors to 6th grade students in August 2012, this year adding 7th grade with plans for adding 8th in 2014. Currently there are 150 students enrolled with eight full-time teachers as well as dozens of community partners on schedule to teach segments and special topics. The idea, grant proposals, community partnerships and vision behind the STEMM Center have been in formation for many years through the efforts of several dedicated people, including Center Administrator (Principal) Jacqueline Craig, STEMM Partnership Development coordinator (acting Assistant Principal) and Regional Science Fair Director Shawnea Tallman, and Doolittle Institute Instructional Design Engineer and Innovative Dimensions Laboratory facilitator Beth Hanning. 

The center an innovative, state-of- the-art technologically-advanced middle school as well as a four-legged partnership created for the advancement of learning – not just for select formative middle schoolers, but for teachers as well. The four legs include the Okaloosa STEMM Academy (OSA), Engineers For America (EFA), Center for STEMM Innovation (CSI) and the Doolittle Institute. 

Students in Okaloosa, Walton and Santa Rosa county who score a Level 5 in Math with a Level 4 or 5 in Reading on their 4thgrade FCAT receive an invitation to apply to the Okaloosa STEMM Academy to attend as a sixth grader. An essay from the student and an essay reflecting support from the parent accompany the completed student registration for enrollment consideration. Once accepted, the students enter a world of schooling closely resembling that of a college-level technology center!

The curricula include advanced classes in all manner of subjects. But to fully understand this center, envision for a moment having full access to your favorite Smithsonian, Please Touch/Children’s Museum or Beakman’s World laboratory. That is what the STEMM center is! Students have access to things like the Boeing EFA sponsored Aviation Lab that uses technology identical to that of our AFB trainees and a chance to learn with mind blowing 3-D imaging technology and printers. They also have access to the Lego sponsored Mini-Urban Challenge, a national robotics problem-based competition project open to OSA students!  In addition, each year all OSA students participate in the annual science fair and Curriculum In Action (CIA) activities (aka field trips).

While all of these schools differ in their appearance and physical structure, there are some similarities that set them apart. Small class sizes and lower teacher-to-student ratios enable students more access and greater attention. Each facility and its staff allow its students freedom to create their own personal education plan (PEP), giving ownership to the student for their interests of instruction – more like a college course schedule selection and less like a traditional middle/high school. Parental involvement and community partnerships increase accountability to both the students and the teachers/staff. The business partnerships, grants and mentoring allow for first-hand guidance of those out in the work force “doing it,” giving the students hands-on access to real life choices, situations and examples of success. It also offers advanced technology.

As Seacoast principal Mr. D’Avignon stated, “We are not just thinking outside the box; we are removing it. There is no box here. We are creating partnerships and pathways with a built in support structure.” And the success is evident in the state and national recognition being received. Beth Hanning sums it up perfectly: “We are an idea lab and able to plant seeds for a desire for learning and success in the formidable middle school years.”  Knowing that 50% of high school dropouts are “gifted” students and over 70% occurs after the ninth grade makes a difference in the way these middle schools are being taught and the way these schools function.  Henry Ford once stated, “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success!” These schools are making a difference in future generations by working together, hearing the students voice, addressing parents’ concerns, bringing in community leaders and business partners; together there is bound to be a change that makes a difference.

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City+School sept oct issue seaside neighborhood middle school seacoast collegiate high school stemm academy ohana institute school

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