MANATEE -- Known for its powerhouse athletics, IMG Academy has also been developing the minds of some of the county's youngest students.
Fewer than 50 students enroll in the elementary school program each year, which serves students from kindergarten through fifth grade. Hidden away from the main campus near the IMG Golf Club on Conquistador Parkway, the outside of the building doesn't really even look like an elementary school.
But inside teachers focus on hands-on experiences for the academy's youngest learners who return to school on Monday.
"We're sort of the hidden gem," said Laura Hahn, the department chair of the elementary program, who has been at IMG since 2002.
The school faces special challenges -- students who play sports, students who travel frequently, students who don't speak English and students who may only enroll for one year then head back to their native countries. But administrators and parents say the small sizes, flexibility and individualized attention make the hefty private school tuition worthwhile.
"We've very conscientious to their needs," Hahn said.
The school enrolls 46 students each year. Last year only 11 were native to the United States. About half of the students are also enrolled in the sports programs at IMG, and attend the academic courses in the mornings before practice. The students who aren't enrolled in the sports programs complete a more traditional school day.
Although the program sticks to the Common Core standards for English and math and the Florida Sunshine Standards for Science and Social Studies, the hands-on experiences make a real difference for students, said Maria Johnson, the elementary school science teacher since 2005.
"We do anything we can to make it tangible," she said.
For example, they run a yearly project called "micro-community" in which the students study a business plan and then run it, in real-life, from top to bottom. The teachers act as the bank and the students take out loans to run their business, calculate what the price of each product should be to maximize the profit margin then actually run the business.
Or the students become entrepreneurs, competing in a "Shark Tank"-like competition, trying to sell their big ideas to their teachers.
The students are also writers, putting out publications for parents in the form of a newsletter and writing essays during the international food fair, held each December.
"We bring it to life," Hahn said.
Hahn and Johnson said the administration is very supportive of their approach and as long as a project or field trip has an academic slant to it, they're free to pursue it.
For the Russells, whose 11-year-old son Stone will enter fifth grade at IMG on Monday, the flexibility of the programs and the small class sizes have been a perfect fit. The family travels frequently between Manatee County and Baltimore, where John Russell serves as the bench coach for the Baltimore Orioles. Stone, a baseball player, also travels for baseball leagues he plays in now.
"It's been such a good fit for us," said Jamie Russell, Stone's mother.
Stone has attended IMG since he was in kindergarten. Because of the small class sizes, Stone has been able to move ahead in math, a subject he excels in. The teachers also work diligently to keep in touch with Stone while he is traveling.
"We can email them or text them," Jamie Russell said. "It's really easy."
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter@MeghinDelaney.