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.
Inside, teachers focus on hands-on experiences for the academy's youngest learners who return to school Monday.
"We're sort of the hidden gem," said Laura Hahn, chairwoman of the elementary program, who has been at IMG since 2002.
The school faces special challenges instructing students who play sports, travel frequently, some don't speak English and students who may only enroll for one year then head back to their native countries. Administrators and parents say small class 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 morning before practice. Students not enrolled in 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, said Maria Johnson, the elementary school science teacher since 2005.
"We do anything we can to make it tangible," she said.
For example, IMG runs a yearly "micro-community" in which the students study a business plan and run it in real-life.
Teachers act as the bank and students take out loans to run businesses and calculate prices for each product to maximize profit margin.
Students can become entrepreneurs competing in a "Shark Tank"-like competition selling their business ideas to the teachers.
Students are also writers, putting out a newsletter for parents and writing essays during the international food fair each December.
"We bring it to life," Hahn said.
Hahn and Johnson said the administration is supportive of the approach and, as long as a project or field trip has an academic slant, they're free to pursue it.
For the Russells, whose 11-year-old son, Stone, will enter fifth grade at IMG, program flexibility and small class sizes have been a perfect fit.
The family travels frequently between Manatee County and Baltimore, where John Russell is bench coach for the Baltimore Orioles.
Stone, a baseball player, also travels for baseball leagues he plays in.
"It's been such a good fit for us," said Stone's mother, Jamie Russell.
Stone has attended IMG since kindergarten.
He has been able to move ahead in math, a subject he excels in. 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.