The revenue crisis that has befallen many state governments is rippling into countless school classrooms. School districts with the most extreme challenges are hit the hardest; those in inner city urban and the most rural areas. Already short on resources, it is harder for these schools to cut back without shorting students.
But as typical, teachers in some school districts are fighting financial burdens with raw effort and innovation. A case in point, as producer Tyler Teske found last autumn, is a western Iowa high school that has found ways to use the earth itself as a classroom.
Like most teenagers, students at Akron Westfield high school in Iowa spend the majority of the academic year in the classroom.
But, twice a year, students and teachers make the two hour trek from Akron to Iowa Lakeside Laboratory on West Lake Okoboji. The group spends three days from sunrise until well past sunset in the pursuit to understand the world around them.
The event is atypical on many fronts. These students and teachers are not only operating outside the traditional classroom, they are undertaking this endeavor during the weekend.
Ronald Wilmot: "You do something and you keep on doing it for four hours and then the students say why do we have to go? Because we've got to go eat. They want to keep on doing it. So, the whole idea of learning is not four square walls with bells ringing and everything set up in a rigid schedule."
Ron Wilmot is one of four teachers from Akron Westfield high claschool involved with the math and science integration weekend at Lakeside Lab. The teachers wanted to provide a chance for the students in their rural Western Iowa school to experience the Lab and participate in real science. That meant crushing the packaged-learning ideas of the classroom and implementing a structure more akin to field science.
During the weekend, students participate in five sessions, each lasting four hours. In that time students must collect samples and data, analyze their findings, and come to a conclusion which will later be shared with the rest of the group. The sessions provide a wide variety of hands-on learning experiences including: soil and water analysis, surface mapping, and topics chosen specifically for students who have attended multiple sessions.
Ronald Wilmot, Akron-Westfield: "I've had students tell me they never knew a human brain could take in so much so fast in three days being here because we put in about nine weeks of work in three days here because it's basically 24 hours a day for three days of learning."
According to Wilmot, the intense learning helps the students begin to assemble an understanding of how biology, geology and weather interact to create the world around them.
Like most rural school districts, Akron Westfield does not have extra money lying around waiting to be used. The students pay to attend, and the teachers are unpaid for their extra work. Extra equipment needs have been met with grant money from various government entities and private foundations. Since the inception of the math and science integration weekend in 1995, Akron has applied for seven grants, and received six.
Support for the project from the school district also helps. Students are allowed a day off, and teachers are provided with a substitute teacher and vehicles to get to the Okoboji area.
Paul Calvert, Superintendent, Akron Westfield Schools: "To me the best educational benefit you can give to kids is any time you can get them out of the classroom into a real world situation where they can apply some of this learning to their every day life…"
Superintendent Paul Calvert claims there is only one real downside to the Lakeside experience: it is impossible to give every student the same experience.
The hands-on experience has reaped benefits back in Akron. Because of the skills gained during the math and science integration weekend, Akron Westfield has been approached by various agencies in surrounding states to conduct field research in western Iowa.
This past spring and summer, students and teachers started a three year study of cricket frog populations on the Big Sioux River. The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks provided a small grant to purchase the equipment needed for the research and the students provided the labor. The result is accurate data for the South Dakota study and real world experience for the students.
Academic enhancement is not the only benefit students bring back from Lakeside Lab.
Ashley Martin: "A lot of people think it's, oh, it's boring science and math stuff but it's so much more because you learn about science and math but you learn a lot about teamwork and you know, how you have to keep trying. There's always problems you have to overcome."
Students claim they learn responsibility by helping with meals and cleaning up after themselves, and teamwork by working with others.
Those acquired skills show up in the classroom where teachers like Pam VonHagel claim the students also bring with them a different view toward learning.
Pam VonHagel, English Teacher Akron-Westfield: "I think it also let's them see their teachers in a different light. They're willing to get out there and work with them because the teachers are actually doing experiments with them, they're not wandering from group to group checking to make sure everybody's following instructions from the book because there are no instructions from the book for these."
Akron Westfield has been contacted numerous times about the possibility of letting students attend from other schools. But the teachers are committed to what they claim is one of the most important aspects of the Lakeside experience: a strict limit of six students per instructor. For the teachers who attend, it is more important to spread the idea that, with hard work, any school could produce a similar program.
Wilmot: "There's a lot of interest for us to take other schools' students but we don't do that because we think that another school should come and we would work with them and then they can learn from us and the two of us together would make a program for them. That's what we want to see."
For Market to Market, I'm Tyler Teske.