Columbia Public Schools to build first-of-its-kind nature school

1 month 2 weeks 5 days ago Friday, December 06 2019 Dec 6, 2019 Friday, December 06, 2019 3:44:00 AM CST December 06, 2019 in Top Stories
By: Caroline Dade, KOMU 8 Reporter
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COLUMBIA - Soon, every fifth grader in Boone County will have the opportunity to learn math, history, language arts and science in a classroom designed around nature. 

Columbia Public Schools is in the process of designing and building a nature school on land adjacent to the Three Creeks Conservation Area

"What we're going to be teaching here is called place-based education," Mike Szydlowski, Columbia Public Schools Science Coordinator, said. "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." 

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

The school will consist of four classrooms and lab space. It will be located on 207 acres of land maintained by the Missouri Department of Conservation. 

Former Columbia Daily Tribune publisher, Hank Waters, and his wife, associate publisher Vicki Russell, donated the land to the department for the sole purpose of being used for the school.

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

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."

The first school was designed for 100 fifth graders to attend full-time. This school will be used by all fifth graders in the district. Szydlowski said all other schools in Boone County, both public and private, are also invited to use the space for their students. 

CPS students will spend a total of seven school days at the school during their fifth grade year. They will spend four days there in the first semester, learning normal course content with a nature focus. They will come back to the nature school for three days during the second semester.

During this time, students will be able to participate in activities like archery, hiking and canoeing. They will have an opportunity to present their project to parents and the community during those three days, as well. 

Szydlowski said 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 in the community. 

Roger Still is in charge of fundraising for the project. 

He said an exact cost estimate will be done by March 31, 2020, and fundraising efforts will begin then. 

Still said this school will be a wholly unique opportunity for students. 

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

Szydlowski said the district has not been able to find any similar building or program anywhere in the nation. 

"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."

Szydlowski and Still will both be at a public meeting about plans for the school Friday afternoon from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Aslin Administration Building. 

The district is giving members of the community the opportunity to provide ideas and suggestions for what should be in and around the school.

The building will not open until the 2021-22 school year, but Szydlowski said some classes will have field trips to the land starting this spring. 

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