This is not your father’s classroomand probably not yours either. As the needs and resources in the world of education evolve, new models for schools have been incorporated along the Suncoast. From the hands-on studies of students at Goldie Feldman Academy to the inspired work improving lives of financially challenged children at Visible Men Academy to the forward-thinking college environment at State College of Florida Collegiate School, educators at these institutions not only leave pupils better prepared for tomorrow, but also take them to tomorrow sooner than planned. SRQ visited these three campuses to explore the changing environment surrounding the region’s lesson plans.

Goldie Feldman Academy

A tome sits on the desk at Goldie Feldman Academy in Sarasota explaining the Reggio Emilia education philosophy, developed in Europe after World War II but growing in popularity in the United States today. The approach, like Montessori education, develops a curriculum around a student’s individual personality and needs, but still has an adult instructor pushing the preschool- and grade school-age children forward in lesson plans. “It’s both student-driven and teacher-facilitated,” explains Head of School Dan Caesar. For example, student groups this year chose to raise bunnies, grow tomatoes in science experiments and visit the Florida Legislature, all guided by trained educators seeking to give students hands-on experience with topics the pupils themselves find stimulating. “It’s an amazing thing to see at play everyday,” Caesar says.

Students, who spend more than an hour of every school day outdoors, build off each other’s strengths in this environment. By the time the children move on from the academy at the end of middle school, they will have studied a wide range of science, current events and other topics through an experiential learning process. 

Goldie Feldman Academy was founded in 1974 as a preschool run by the adjacent Temple Beth Sholom. The school eventually expanded its private school offerings to teach children all the way through 8th grade in multiple on-site facilities, but this school year it became an independent educational institution. Caesar came on at that time, and while he wasn’t at GFA when Temple Beth still owned the school, he stressed the break was amicable and never intended to express discontent with the religious institution. But these days, half the student body at GFA has no connection to Judaism. “We have a very international student body,” he says, pointing at flags that hang from the rafters representing every student’s heritage.

In a garden running between the playground and outdoor classroom, plots teem with vegetables selected, grown and harvested by the student body. There is even a special plot for kindergarteners, which came about when young ones were tearing off pieces of kale that older students were growing to put under a microscope. Rather than make the garden off-limits to the youngest students, the older ones suggested a special garden where the kindergarteners can grow what they want and do with it as they please.

And on the northern side of the student gardens, a group of third- and fourth-graders has a special crop of tomatoes. Through a donor connection with NASA, the students have planted with the same type of tomato seeds and fertilizer that astronauts now have growing on the International Space Station. Every day, students measure the weight of budding fruit, then send the data to NASA for comparison with plants establishing in a zero-gravity environment. “We think ours is growing pretty good,” says third-grader Maya Werbow. Her group in class has planted in 100-day fertilizer, and tomatoes are starting to ripen. But fourth-grader Carolyn Caesar, the headmaster’s daughter, proudly boasts that the biggest tomatoes right now are growing in her plot, a 50/50 mix of 100-day and 180-day fertilizer. “The goal is to find what would be the best to grow on Mars,” Carolyn says. “I think the mix.” This project has been running since December, so hopefully the answer becomes clear before NASA gets Matt Damon off the ground in real life. 

Inside, middle schoolers blast sound from a variety of instruments for the marching band. Caesar says every middle school student at the school participates in the band as part of creative exploration. In an alcove around the corner, a cage full of bunnies greets every student passing by at child’s height. The rabbits are kept alive by the Bunny Club, a group of first-graders that have become experts with a sort of celebrity within the school. And that’s what Caesar says Goldie Feldman Academy ultimately exists to do: empower children while encouraging them to interact with one another. “It is just as important to us that not only do they become great students but that there is a genuine curiosity and love for learning,” he says.

Visible Men Academy

Kickballs fly through the air as students convene for a game at the Visible Men Academy in Bradenton. Neil Phillips, CEO for the academy, watches with a grin. These kids, all of whom come from underprivileged families statistically shown to be at risk in society, smile at one another and rush around with enthusiasm. While many school districts cut down recess time to a sliver of the day, the academy allows for the kids to spend about an hour-and-a-half doing outdoor physical activity each day. “It burns energy, yes,” Phillips says, “but more important, it regenerates energy for class. Energy is not a bad thing to us.” It will take a few years to see whether any of these boys do fall prey to less well-intended forces—the oldest kids on the yard are fifth-graders—but Phillips has faith in these students. The problems with youths in poor communities and minority populations, he believes, stem at least in part with treating children like problems in classroom environments at a very young age.

At Visible Men Academy, Phillips aims to flip the script. “We have to think differently about how we deliver school,” he says. “They need to develop a healthy attachment to the concept and idea of school. Unless and until that changes, we will see poor results.” This philosophy can be seen at work in a kindergarten classroom led by teacher Tracy Esmerelda. Wearing a microphone hooked to a speaker system so that she never has to shout, Esmerelda in one sense is a taskmaster—every time someone speaks out of turn, she makes note and then turns to a student with his hand in the air. But at the same time, the educator won’t cavalierly employ discipline either. When one student answers a question and another ignores that fact, she turns to the child not tuned-in to the lesson. “Can you ask him what he just said as the answer?” Esmerelda suggests. Suddenly, the unengaged student has his attention focused not just on the curriculum, but also that his friend was engaged the whole time. It’s a technique Phillips says proves critical at this charter school. “These kids, they are inquisitive,” Phillips says. “They want to learn, and they want to be challenged when they know the environment is a nurturing and loving one.” 

The academy opened three years ago operating out of a few portables behind the Community Church of God on 63rd Avenue. Last year, the school started bringing in fourth- and fifth-graders after earning acclaim for success with the K–3 set. The number of portables has grown, and Phillips now has his eyes on a 14-acre property next door already promised as the future home of the academy. Educators have lauded the facility, an all-boys school with a Manatee County School District charter, and Phillips, who previously worked as an administrator at Out-of-Door Academy, has become a nationally recognized expert on providing an education to troubled populations. But the greatest testimonials come from the boys themselves. “It’s cool here,” says third-grader Elijah Lang. “Boys have to have play.” He talks about the “solar” time allotted every day, a period when boys are expected to charge outside like energy panels. But kids also speak highly of classroom experiences.

Marvens LaCombe, a fourth-grader, has been at the school since it first opened and loves the Shining Chefs program, where the students plant and later cook foods, many of which can be taken home to the family. Logan Kindred, a fifth-grader, started at the academy this year and feels more at home than he ever did in traditional schools. “I feel encouraged here. I feel safe,” he says. “I am not a sports person, but I have become attached to the sports time. It has been nice.” 

As of now, the administration for the academy largely works out of a shared space with the church. Phillips doesn’t have his own office and simply spreads his things out on a cafeteria table and uses a mobile phone to make any important calls. This will surely evolve in time as well, but his focus never turns toward improving a work environment for himself. The priority always has been the boys. “If we do this well, these boys will become leaders for younger boys,” he says. Eventually, the students will stay at the academy through eighth grade and hopefully be prepared to be upstanding citizens when they advance to high school environments. Until then, it’s all about keeping their energies focused on growth.

State College of Florida Collegiate School

Tucked behind the gymnasium and volleyball courts where State College of Florida students often convene sits Building 19. Unlike every other structure at the Bradenton campus, this building has a parent drop-off circle and serves students attending sixth grade through high school. But like every structure on campus, the State College of Florida Collegiate School exists for preparing students to receive a college degree.

This school within a school coaches middle school kids to be ready for independent study and the rigors of a college classroom, then phases them into high school environments where the curriculum is aligned with state rules so students will earn an associate of the arts college degree at the same time they receive their high school diplomas. “Students that are dual-enrolled often have to figure everything out themselves, but we have counselors helping them through every step of the process,” says Academic Administrator Karen Peck.

With a multi-purpose room that boasts a pile of beanbag chairs and a courtyard that seems more like a college park than a middle school running field, the atmosphere immediately feels more collegiate than your typical middle school. But then, administrators are conscious that the social mixing of sixth-graders and college sophomores could produce poor results. The school does get divided into wings, with middle schoolers on the south wing and ninth- and 10th-graders taking classes on a north wing. High school juniors and seniors, though, get sent out the backdoor onto the main SCF campus, taking classes alongside traditional college-age students as well as the adults that routinely enroll in SCF classes. Those students only come back for weekly meetings with counselors to make sure they are academically on track.

Head of School Kelly Monod says careful attention is put into ensuring these students are prepared for the academic rigors that come with the course load. “We pace the kids, but if they are not understanding a concept they always have an opportunity to go back here and talk with us,” she says. The most striking thing in the classroom wings of the school is a scarcity of walls. Students assemble for classes, but most of the time there is no barrier or door blocking the class from the hallway. This means you can hear discussions of literature or biology at any given moment while walking from one side of school to another. “I definitely enjoy it more than a boxed-in classroom with a door,” says eighth-grader Parker Davis.

And along the way, numerous stations stand with large-screen monitors where students can be found studying independently as well. Sixth-graders Jade Fuller and Kalee Gonzalez, working together on a class project at one of these nodes, say the environment feels different than what they expected from middle school. “Instead of having to stay in the classroom, we get to go around and interact,” Kalee says. The pair right now is researching the answers for an assignment about The Giver, a book assigned for class. Jade hooks an iPad into a port and suddenly the two can work on the assignment with a shared screen. It’s great access to educational technology and freedom to study at one’s own pace. “I feel happy to get to do this,” Jade says.

For the older kids, the draw of earning an associate of the arts degree at an earlier date proves a tremendous draw. “A lot of successful students have gone here and done better stuff after here,” says Jonah Durst, an eighth-grader. Of course, he also knows students that decided this school was too rigorous and returned to traditional schools, but then struggled in an environment that was less challenging and expected little from them. Here, Durst says, every student has an eye on college and a desire to succeed.

Peck says many students end up enrolling just for their junior and senior years, taking advantage of the coordinated curriculum to get the associate’s degree. But the students that go from sixth through graduation enjoy a bounty of coaching resources and educator support. And each year, 10 students who graduate from the program are guaranteed acceptance into Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.