This is the 2nd in a series about our partnership with the Chula Vista Nature Center at Gunpowder Point. These posts will document our progress as we move our middle school science program off campus– to a satellite classroom called the San Diego Bay!
It is the first day of school and so our students return. It is mid-summer… most school districts will not call their students back until after Labor Day. Not El Milagro, though. We start early. So ready or not, they are are descending– in droves. Record high enrollment and a long waiting list means business is good.
This year there are some new things, like our Full-Day Kindergarten program. And there is an automatic back gate in the staff parking lot that allows teachers to drive up and never get out of their cars as the fence opens and closes behind them. But that’s not our best new feature. This year we are partnering with the Chula Vista Nature Center and moving our middle school science program right into the middle of their facility.
The Nature Center sits on a reserve at the edge of the San Diego Bay, two miles from Mueller Charter School. There are aquariums and marshes and protected reserves that surround a natural, outdoor classroom. It will provide our students with a rare opportunity to learn in a real-life laboratory of interconnected ecosystems… every day. It is a reminder that we cannot get so preoccupied with standardized testing and teaching the basic skills required to score well– that we forget to create opportunities for authentic learning too. Opportunities to think, imagine, create, explore, discover, question, use the technology, solve the riddles of the universe and learn to love learning.
The Nature Center is our reminder that we are out of whatever “the box” is and our students could be the beneficiaries.
Last Friday the whole staff met at the Nature Center for a morning of activities and learning together. They explored the many exhibits and habitats there. They created themes around some of the big ideas of life science like adaptation and evolution, scale and structure, systems, the magic of water, color and song, and interconnected relationships in nature.
And we searched for balance.
Or at least a definition for it. And we discovered that definition in the very dream of what we think the Nature Center partnership can be for kids. If we are truly “balanced” we would do all three of these things well:
• FIRST : We would enthusiastically play the testing game and make sure our kids have the basic skills they need to excel in math and reading; that we get the big scores to keep our autonomy and independence– and our charter! We would also work urgently to achieve all the AYP goals and to assure that that our API is pushing into the stratosphere.
• SECOND: Beyond basic skills, we would work just as hard to provide a more authentic, thinking curriculum that allows children to discover their natural gifts and interests. A curriculum that features the interesting stuff that engages students every day. Like the Nature Center and all its wind-framed beauty and ocean air; its banks of slippery seaweed, its deep fish tanks that stink. Or the tidepools, tucked snugly up against shallow marshes that splash mud and seawater on kid’s school clothes when the tide is up. Or rare creatures on loan from their fragile ecosystems; sometimes strange life-forms that can make kids smile when they hold them in their hands.
• FINALLY, we would help our students develop as literate, interesting, passionate, connected, people. We help them develop the habits and attitudes of successful learners: Respect. Responsibility. Commitment. Character. And other stuff too.
The Nature Center is more than a metaphor– it is an authentic learning lab, a model for what schools must do to provide all children with a context for growing up as complete human beings. So that is the balance that we seek school-wide: 1) the basic skills required to demonstrate mastery on standardized tests, 2) the rich thinking curriculum to engage our students with their world, and 3) an emphasis on nurturing the character traits of successful citizens and learners.
If we achieve that, it will be a great year!