From the expansive glass walls down to the mirrored, glass chess boards, everything about the new Discovery Day Academy building speaks of innovation.
Rather than cafeteria food, there’s an on-site chef who delivers from-scratch, “multicultural” meals to each classroom for family-style dining. Instead of stationary desks in rows, there are individual Steelcase rolling chairs with adjustable desk trays, complete with drink holder. This allows for flexible learning space, with easy movement from circle time to face-front instruction to small group collaboration.
The “Makerspace” is used by classes throughout the day, whenever the inspiration strikes. It’s a place where inquiry leads to engineering, filled with various construction materials, including art supplies, textiles, building sets, LED lights and robotics. A 3D printer is on its way.
This 21st Century School opened on North Commons Drive in Bonita Springs just in time for the start of the school year Aug. 17, accommodating 100 students in preschool through fifth grade. Another 80 preschoolers remain in the school’s old building just down the road, opened in 2006.
While there is room to grow — the new facility accommodates up to 292 students — this year’s enrollment has doubled over last year. As the school expands its upper elementary grades, more parents are willing to pay the $10,000-10,500 annual tuition.
“I want the best opportunity for my kids,” said Will Scott, a local inventor and managing partner of Bonita-based Marbles, who enrolled his two kids in the academy this fall. “I want them to feel like they can do anything and not be held back.”
That’s the idea behind the proprietary, project-based Discovery Method used at the school, said founder and Head of School Elizabeth Garcia. A modern-art portrait of Einstein watches over her as she works in her contemporary office, naturally lit with floor-to-ceiling windows.
She visited children’s museums and science museums from Boston to New York to Washington, D.C., to gain inspiration for the school’s design. It’s meant to foster creativity.
“The makers philosophy is essentially promoting innovation of students,” Garcia explained.
Along with being an experienced educator and holding an MBA, Garcia earned her undergraduate degree in philosophy. That inquisitive nature led her to question traditional methods of educating in America. Instead of “teaching to the test,” the academy’s teachers take on a facilitator role and let the students’ questions lead discussions and projects.
Discovery Day Academy is the only Florida school to earn the prestigious Exemplar designation from the Partnership for 21st Century Learning. P21 is a public-private partnership founded by the U.S. Department of Education and corporate giants like AOL Time Warner, Apple and Microsoft. Exemplar schools are spotlighted as “patterns of innovation” for others to follow.
“We hope to inspire schools to step out and try something different,” Garcia said.
Not only do academy students innovate for their own learning, they also use their ideas to help solve problems in the world around them. A kindergarten class raised money to purchase eight acres of rain forest for conservation. Other students donated a quilt they made in the Makerspace to a local homeless shelter.
“We look for change-making opportunities and become social engineers to learn about the world and make a difference,” Garcia said.
The after-school program offers even more opportunities for world-class enrichment. Chef Tripp Perkins teaches culinary arts, often using fresh ingredients harvested from the school’s own garden. The academy’s dance instructor is a graduate of Juilliard, and the drama teacher performs on Broadway in the summer.
Sixty percent of the staff hold a master’s degree, Garcia added. With the school’s enrollment doubling this fall, 35 new staff members were hired, including 15 teachers.
“We recruited from across the U.S. to hire teachers with experience in project-based learning,” Garcia noted.
One of those new hires is first grade teacher Candi Kominick, who came from a public school in Youngstown, Ohio. She was shocked to see such outside-the-box thinking from six-year-olds who had been reared in the Discovery program.
“They are definitely used to thinking on their own and creating on their own, rather than waiting for someone to show them how to do it,” she said. “It’s very exciting.”
After 10 years of teaching with standard curriculum and set routines, Kominick says she’s the one who might learn the most this year.
“It’s so new and so fresh and so innovative,” she said of the Discovery Method. “The depth they learn is beyond any imagining. We’ll be creating and exploring together.