Editor's Note: Next week will be the final article in a series on Burns Sci Tech School, focusing on the school’s plans to add a new high school.
Ray Budde, a professor at the University of Massachusetts who had a particular interest in organizational theory, wrote a paper in 1974, “Education by Charter,” on the possible benefits of reorganizing school districts.
Although Professor Budde’s ideas didn’t coincide with the charter schools of today, he is credited with starting the charter school movement.
Minnesota was the first state to pass a charter school law in 1991 and California followed in 1992. Charter school legislation failed in Florida on the first attempt in 1995, but the Florida Legislature approved it the following year.
The idea was to allow for school choice. Parents of students attending schools that rated poorly could opt to apply to charter schools. Or a charter school may appeal to parents and students because of a particular course of study offered.
Charter schools are public schools. Their students still take state standardized tests and the schools themselves are rated by the state in the same way all public schools are graded. But charter schools are encouraged to use innovative learning methods. They also are exempt from most of the state statutes governing public schools and, because they operate independently with their own school boards, they encounter less red tape and have more options in how the schools are built, maintained and operated.
According to a July news release from the Florida Department of Education, more than half (51%) of Florida’s charter schools earned an A in the 2018-19 school year, compared to 32% of traditional public schools. Seventy-four percent of charter schools earned an A or B, compared to 61% of traditional public schools.
Burns Sci-Tech School in Oak Hill is one of seven charter schools in Volusia County and has earned an A rating from the state for the past five years. The school initially served students from kindergarten through eighth grade, but added a ninth grade class this year.
Burns is STEM-certified, meaning it concentrates on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But administrators and teachers say that doesn’t tell the whole story.
The school now incorporates STEAM, which adds an art component to the STEM focus. Not only do they have an art program, but art is intricately woven into other curriculum. For example, in the robotics lab, the students recently conducted a robot wedding, where each robot had its place in the ceremony and was programmed to move accordingly, but was also dressed in appropriate attire designed and created by the students themselves.
And art is expressed in various forms, whether it be done by hand, on the computer or through music and other avenues.
With all the technology and creativity happening at the school, fundamentals have not taken a back seat. Behavior and attitude are stressed at all times. Mindfulness is practiced. There is a yoga studio where the students are taught how to reduce stress and improve their overall health.
Agricultural sciences also are a focus at the school. Students learn through classwork as well as real-world examples. The school has raised-bed gardens, hydroponic growing systems and raise their own fish for studying aquaculture. The food they grow is then shared in the cafeteria.
Every grade uses technology. Students in kindergarten through second grade are each assigned a Kindle Fire to use during school each day and students in grades three and up use Apple iPads.
Along with computers, Burns Sci-Tech students have access to a flight simulator, 3-D printers and CNC machines. The technology the students encounter through classwork and community partnerships is impressive. Combining the engineering, technology, math and science with appreciation for the arts and a focus on health and wellness is equally so.
Shawna Batchelor, who has been at Burns for eight years, teaches music. Every student has access to music classes. “I have nearly 80 students, kindergarten through grade six, taking lessons on string instruments during the school day and about 30 middle school students in advanced performing ensembles,” Ms. Batchelor said.
Caroline Ferris teaches third grade math and science at Burns. Her students are focusing on multiplication and division in math. In science, they are learning about the universe.
“At Burns, we believe that learning while doing is important,” explained Ms. Ferris. “In the fall, we learn about physical properties of matter in science. I bring in pumpkins of different colors and sizes for each student. I cut the top off and allow the students to clean the pumpkin out while recording the different properties. We then use our iPads to record pictures and videos of the pumpkins in order to make presentations. I love this activity because the students are learning but most importantly, they are making memories and having fun.”
The school has grown over the years, adding grades and buildings along the way. In 2015, Burns dedicated the McGee Middle School building, named in honor of Dr. Jan McGee, the school’s principal.
They got the building from the Kennedy Space Center. Dr. McGee said she was told to inquire about some buildings that may be available due to phasing out of the shuttle program. The school was able to raise and borrow funds to transport the building sections to the school property, reconnect them and set them up for classrooms, offices, a computer lab and a conference room.
Just last month the school opened a new gymnasium. Due to generous donations and favorable financing, the school was able to include additional classrooms and art and yoga studios under the same roof.
Dr. McGee said she no longer lets money drive school planning. Time and time again, she said, people come through for the school and what seems impossible, comes to fruition.
April Wood, a kindergarten teacher at Burns, cited such an example.
“I can remember our first Donuts with Dads event,” Ms. Woods said. “We had several students whose dad couldn't attend. Dr. McGee put a little message on Facebook asking for some stand-ins for the event. We got an overwhelming response and there wasn't a single child that didn't have someone to share their donuts with. The best part was that those stand-ins were so impressed with our students that they signed up to be mentors for those students for the rest of the year! Things like that happen all the time around here.”