SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) — On Tuesday, 50 Springfield students will start eighth grade in a hospital.
Forty fifth-graders will go to class in a science museum.
They'll be part of two new Springfield Public Schools programs starting this year outside of traditional school buildings. The Health Science Academy will be at Mercy Hospital, while the Academy of Exploration — with a science, technology, engineering and math focus — will be housed at the Discovery Center of Springfield.
They mark the largest expansion of off-site "choice" or special academic programs in recent years. They owe their existence, in part, to the popularity of the Wonders of the Ozarks Learning Facility, or WOLF, program for fifth-graders in partnership with Bass Pro Shops, The Springfield News-Leader reported (http://sgfnow.co/1kWKXFl ).
Superintendent John Jungmann said the programs wouldn't be possible without strong community support and partnerships. He added that while locales may be unorthodox, the curriculum was crafted to better engage and empower students to learn in hands-on ways.
"We need to give parents and kids options relevant to experiences that excite them," he said.
Technology and flexible learning spaces — utilizing the entire science museum and hospital campus — is designed to allow students to conquer traditional academic subjects, such as science, through different approaches.
Students were selected through a random lottery, although there was an even split of boys and girls. All students could apply as long as they had a history of good behavior and attendance.
At the Academy of Exploration, Jungmann said students will "explore the world around them through multiple lenses of science, technology, engineering and math." He added: "We know the future job market for our kids lie in a lot of those areas."
Grafton Miller, 10, knew immediately the academy at the Discovery Center was for him.
"It seems really fun. There will be a lot of projects," said Miller, who attended Cowden Elementary last year. Grafton's dad, Steve Miller, said his son has always been good at science and building things.
Korbin Ewing, who also attended Cowden last year, said he applied to both fifth-grade programs, the Academy of Exploration and WOLF. He is excited to be part of the academy's first year.
"I was proud that I got picked," Ewing said. "Science is really nice and full of experiments and hands-on stuff."
Parents are required to provide transportation, and the school supply list is unique to each program. All students must wear uniforms.
At a recent parent meeting, Amber Langston was working to set up a carpooling schedule with other interested families. Her son Gabe, 11, attended Harrison Elementary in southwest Springfield, and the drive will be a long one each day.
Still, Langston, who works in Nixa, didn't want her son to miss out on the program just because it was out of the way.
"He's said for a few years that he wanted to be an engineer, so we applied and crossed our fingers," she said.
The academies are open to any students who live in the Springfield school district, even if they attended a private school last year. Rachel Moore, 10, was at Greenwood Laboratory School, on the Missouri State University campus, last year.
She is "interested in experiencing science" in a different way and wants to be a veterinarian. "I'm excited to come to the Discovery Center every day and do all of the activities," she said.
Shellie Robertson's son, Preson, was picked for the Health Sciences Academy. He is interested in being an architect or an orthodontist, but she expects that list to grow this school year.
"Personally, I work in the health care area so that interested me initially," she said.
Robertson said the "huge success" that the district has had implementing other choice programs, including WOLF, which had more than 400 applicants for less than 50 spots last year, gave her the courage to try a new program.
She's also excited about the wide range of health care areas, from therapy to surgery, that students will be exposed in the hospital setting.
"He is super excited to be able to explore the different aspects within the hospital setting — it is really like a small community in itself — and learn about health sciences," she said.
At a recent community meeting, Jungmann said the district is open to expanding "choice" offerings. He pointed to a recent survey showing that more than 80 percent of local parents who responded said such options should be "the future direction" of the district.
"That's quite a motivator for us to continue to look down that road," he said.
The school board signed off on spending extra for materials, curriculum development and training. But many of the other costs are being covered by partners. For example, the Hamels Foundation has agreed to pay to lease the classroom spaces at the Discovery Center.
"It's really what made it possible," said Christine Jones, the district's specialist for choice and innovation. "We have families willing to explore new ways to learn, and we have partners willing to leverage resources and passions to make this happen."
Jones said both academies will look very different after the first year. She said the district will constantly look at what's working, seek feedback from parents and students and make tweaks along the way.
"This year we're going to learn a lot and we're going to learn together," Jones said. "...They're a great opportunity for us, as a district, to think differently about education."
Associate Superintendent Ben Hackenwerth, who oversees choice and innovation, said the academies will, in time, change the way learning happens across the district.
"We use these programs as incubators," he said. "They enable us to learn and do things differently and then push that out to the schools so it can benefit all students."
Information from: Springfield News-Leader, http://www.news-leader.com