When you open the front door at Academy Hill School in Springfield you’re not entering just any K-8 educational system, because within these walls - which are vibrantly decorated with student art and topics that pique their curiosities - something undeniably special is happening. With a mission to enhance the educational experience of students through rigorous, engaging, personalized curricular and co-curricular programs, the entire curriculum is something to dote upon. Today, however, the focus is shifted to Mrs. Danielle Mazur’s third grade class and the 200 trout eggs that have just been delivered by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) for the Teaching With Trout Program.
“At this school we like to incorporate a lot of hands-on activities,” explains Danielle. “This was the opportunity to bring in real examples to make our textbooks come alive.”
With a large purple tent in the center of her classroom, the space represents an instructor who embraces the outdoors and natural world. Teaching With Trout merges this passion while perfectly aligning itself with Academy Hill School’s learning philosophy. Students will raise brook trout from eggs during the winter then release them into approved lakes and streams this spring. The interim provides an opportunity to learn concepts of ecology, population biology, water quality, and conservation. The program encourages the opportunity to observe, predict, experiment, explore and expand minds, and measure outcomes even in the earliest grades.
Danielle’s third grade class is made up of four students - Alexis, Lauren, Mya and Sam - each huddled around the class table and very enthusiastic about discussing this new project. They share that they are just monitoring the eggs, for now, making sure they retain the correct color and removing those that do not. Additionally, students will feed, supervise tank water quality, engage in stream habitat studies, and have an increased awareness of natural resources, with the goal to foster a conservation ethic. The program encompasses not only science, but many other curriculum areas including language arts, mathematics, social studies, ecology, and art.
Teaching With Trout is a science-enrichment program utilizing a cold-water aquarium system to emulate the natural habitat of the trout. To acquaint herself with the logistics and outcomes, Danielle attended a day-long seminar held at the MassWildlife headquarters this past autumn. Here, she received a broad understanding of how to lead the program, was educated on setting up the tank and materials, and then obtained a permit to possess wildlife. With supplies that totalled nearly $1300., Academy Hill was able to realize the pricey materials through a donation coordinated with Dave’s Soda and Pet City and A.W. Brown’s - each were a major component in obtaining these needed learning tools.
Inside the science lab the class gathers around a large, insulated 5-gallon tank. An amalgam of a water chiller, filter, pumps and accessories drape the backside of the tank to help emulate the trout’s natural habitat. Students begin to peer into the small window. Even though not much has changed since they last observed, each looks over their shoulder excited to report what they’re viewing. The trout tank has become a bit of an attraction in the school, inviting others to participate in the hands-on experience, like the 6th grade class who will assist in water testing. “The program is designed to get kids connected to wildlife and wild places,” says Danielle.
“The hope is that these kids will one day return to fish for these trout, fulfilling the mission that students will become connected to the environment in which they live.” The Teaching With Trout program is just one of Academy Hill’s many differentiated programs designed to “harness the talents and gifts each child exhibits, and help to guide every child to find new and creative ways to access knowledge, interpret content, and develop and present ideas.”
Here, each child’s education is tailored to his or her own strengths and learning style with flexible schedules that allow students to work at their own pace. Students also have the opportunity to explore their own personal interests, delving into topics that pique their curiosities. “We have the “Good Morning Show” and for kids who are passionate about their learning and questions, it’s a very important part of their day,” says Danielle.
“Students conduct self-guided research projects on self-selected topics and then present it to the school, depending on the grade level. They learn from each other, while discovering who else is passionate about science, space or plants [for example]. Forums take research to the next level.”
Similarly, Enrichment Clusters are group-based programs that bridge students’ like-interests. During a 3-day session, students work collaboratively with the facilitator to explore topics from many different angles. The three days conclude with an exposition of all students’ work during an all school meeting. It’s these types of activities that foster success through public speaking, authentic support and confidence in gained-knowledge. Danielle, who was inspired to join the staff here after seeing her own children’s success at Academy Hill, says the school focuses on teaching the “whole” child and the learning community is designed for children who show early signs of exceptional ability in academics, creativity, and/or leadership.
“My kids [and students] always felt vested in their own learning. They learned initiative, perseverance and have been presented with tasks that were appropriate challenges,” says Danielle. “They’ve always been excited by these challenges and taught to really grapple with different ideas.”
It’s a unique community here, one created by students who come from Connecticut, East Longmeadow, Wilbraham, Agawam, Northampton, and everywhere in between. No matter where you’re from, at Academy Hill, you’re treated like family.
“Students have the unique opportunity to be completely who they are and loved for that because they’re surrounded by their brothers and sisters, we are truly like a family” says Danielle. “They truly support and encourage each other, and it’s such a wonderful way to experience school.”
Academy Hill School is located at 1190 Liberty Street in Springfield. To learn more about Academy Hill School, please visit academyhill.org or call 413-788-0300.