At South Florida Museum, pre-K students get a once in a lifetime experience

When using the five different senses — touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight — to examine a shark’s jawbone, Ballard pre-kindergarten teacher Rachel Spivey reminded her 4-year-old scientists of the Noise! exhibit they had recently visited at the South Florida Museum.

“Do you remember?” she said, as the children sat around her on mats. “In order to hear something, you have to have motion.”

Spivey’s 13 students didn’t hop on a bus for a field trip to check out the exhibit, which recently closed and will be replaced with a dinosaur bone exhibit, but instead, walked down the hallway from their classroom to spend time in the exhibit firsthand.

For the first time, the Manatee County School District and the South Florida Museum have partnered to hold a pre-K classroom inside the museum. Instead of heading to their home school of Ballard, Spivey and her students spend day in and day out just down the hall from a planetarium, an aquarium and Manatee’s most famous manatee.

Mutually beneficial

The closing of Orange Ridge-Bullock Elementary School forced the school district to send those 700 or so students to surrounding schools in the central corridor. Former Orange Ridge students are mostly housed at Rogers Garden-Bullock Elementary School this year, but Oneco, Manatee, Samoset and Ballard elementary schools were also affected by the move.

In Ballard’s case, that meant using all the available classroom space, and there was no room left over for a pre-kindergarten class. Ballard has also seen its own uptick in enrollment and even without closing down Orange Ridge, Ballard was tight for space.

“There were lots of obstacles,” said Robin Thompson, the district’s director of early learning, praising district staff for working collaboratively to head off any issues. “The museum has been so flexible.”

In Florida, classroom space must first be utilized for kindergarten through grade 5 classrooms first, and pre-K can be housed at the school if there’s space.

Somewhere along the lines, somebody said: “What if we house them at the museum?”

Thompson sent Jeff Rodgers, the museum’s director of education and director of the planetarium, a text. He ran it up the hierarchy.

“It only took us a day to get to yes,” Rodgers said.

Not only did the deal give the pre-K students their own classroom, but it helps with the upcoming all-encompassing $12 million transformation of the South Florida Museum. Part of the planned renovations include building a children’s wing. What better way to get ideas as to how kids learn, and what kids want to learn, than to have “an army of 4-year-olds” in the museum, Rodgers said.

“They tell us where to start,” he said. “At this age, there’s no limit to their curiosity.”

Parents and students have been supportive and excited about the program so far, and Thompson said it was nice to get students from a Title I school, which has high poverty levels, into a museum. The classroom is also a mixed classroom, which means it has some traditional learners and some students who require additional attention.

That also helps the museum, so they can see how to accommodate children who learn differently.

Superintendent Diana Greene called the partnership very “rare.”

“I don’t think there’s anything like this,” she said.

For a traditional public school, it is pretty rare, Rodgers said. In other areas of the country, particularly New York City and Washington D.C., it’s not out of the ordinary to see classrooms or small schools held in museums, he said. But those are often charter schools or private schools and not traditional public school children.

Changes and challenges

Rodgers and other museum staffers have gotten used to having the children roaming the hallways. That means there are lots of group hugs and morning are always very high energy now, he said.

“The mornings are much more happy and energetic,” he said.

There are some new traffic patterns both inside and outside the museum to accommodate the children in the museum full-time. Rodgers joked about the “tiny toilets” in the bathrooms now, and new schedules.

First-year Ballard principal Mike Masiello gets over to the museum at least once a week to check in and visit with the little learners. Schedules were also worked out to make sure the different occupational and physical therapists working at Ballard could accommodate the needs of the class at the museum.

Transportation and the food services department have also been involved in making sure everything goes off without a hitch, Thompson said.

“As things come up, we try to have brainstorming sessions. We also try to be as proactive as possible,” Thompson said.

The district has developed a rubric of sorts, that compiles the different challenges and the ways around them, in case there are more satellite operations in store for the growing district.

Ideally, Rodgers said he’d like to keep his one classroom of students, and maybe even expand to more as the museum expands as well.

Mosaic Backyard Universe

Using the area that’s now the north parking lot, museum officials are planning to create a functional backyard, called the Mosaic Backyard Universe, to engage children from age 4 to second grade, Rodgers said.

“It’ll be an indoor and outdoor exploration of the natural world,” he said.

Unlike a children’s museum, which can sometimes be gimmicky, the children’s wing at the South Florida Museum won’t include fake cows for children to milk, Rodgers said. The 6,000 square-foot area will mimic the natural world.

“That’s why this has been so important,” Rodgers said of the pre-K class.

Construction is already underway on what Rodgers calls the “frontyard” space, a smaller version of the Backyard Universe that’ll also help shape what the backyard space looks like. The frontyard space will take up room outside the existing museum on 10th Street West. Notably, it’ll include a tricycle race track.

The children in the museum day in and day out have already provided a rich wealth of data about how children learn and how children are engaged.

The museum expansion will also include a minimum of six classrooms and a couple labs, Rodgers said, so that the museum can continue educational programs.

Ground is expected to break on the first part of the expansion, which includes the backyard universe, next summer.

Meghin Delaney: 941-745-7081, @MeghinDelaney

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