Flying Colors - Success Story

Learning as Exploration at Bear Exploration Center


By Elaina Hundley, Magnet Schools of America, Membership Coordinator 

 Bear Exploration Center for Mathematics, Science and Technology, a Blue Ribbon winning school in Montgomery, Alabama, has been a high performing magnet elementary since 1996. Blue Ribbon schools are schools recognized by the US government for exhibiting high levels of student performance and for making significant improvements toward closing the achievement gap. Bear earned this prestigious designation in 2015.  Ms. Elizabeth Hill, Bear’s Principal and Ms. Loretta Harrison, Bear’s Reading Specialist, spoke with me a bit about what has made Bear Exploration center successful for so long.

 Their small school setting (roughly 20 students in each class) allows for personalized and hands on learning. At Bear, teachers strive to bring math and science to life for students with an outdoor classroom, an on-campus science lab, and by connecting math, science and technology with vocabulary, reading, and art. Their curricular design is data-driven and forward thinking, making it consistent with students needs year after year.  In addition to facilitating high quality instructional systems for their students, Bear also facilitates innovative professional development and a close-knit work environment for its leaders and teachers resulting in high employee retention rates. Finally, Ms. Hill attributes much of Bear’s success to parental participation and support which allows educators at Bear to truly focus on student achievement.

 Learning through Doing, Experiencing and Bringing it all Together

With a strong focus in math, science and technology, Bear Exploration Center introduces young minds to big concepts through hands on experiences, connections between disciplines, and by showing students the real world application of the mathematical, scientific, and technological concepts they learn each day. Through the use of manipulatives, teaching measurement (a mathematical concept) as part of an art project, and having students tend to a school garden and outdoor classroom, complex processes in science and tricky formulas in math are given a vivid context at Bear.

 Educators at Bear are flexible and often take the time to reevaluate their approach if a student is struggling, teachers ask themselves how they can make science, math, and tech more relevant to their k-5 audience. Learning in math, science, and tech is not automatic for this age group, but by transforming theory into practice and concept into experience, teachers tie learning to memory in a way that helps students understand and retain the information more thoroughly.

High Retention of Staff

By engaging staff in regular team building, immersive off-campus professional development (i.e. flying with the Civil Air Patrol), and by fostering camaraderie among staff members, Bear leaders are able to keep their educators excited about teaching. In addition, members of staff like Loretta, Bear’s reading specialist, are on hand to provide teachers with support and a fresh set of eyes when considering the implementation of new teaching and learning strategies.

Ms. Hill and Ms. Harrison gave an example of team brainstorming. They are currently working with a student who struggles to see letters. This student seems to possess solid spacial awareness so the staff worked together to determine a new strategy to try with him. For this student the team is experimenting with a three dimensional font. Since the student performs well in math and possesses advanced spacial awareness, three dimensional letters may help him improve his reading skills.

In addition to working together to creatively problem solve in the classroom, teachers and leaders at Bear also enjoy a positive relationship with parents.

Parental Support and Participation

 Ms. Hill advises other magnet leaders to reach out to parents and to include them in what is going on in the classroom. Parents are an essential part of any school community. At Bear, the PTA is engaged and helps bring in more parental involvement and support through regular Math Nights, Science Nights, and other activities. At Bear, community and family involvement is approached as an opportunity for parents and kids to come spend the evening with their Bear Exploration Family. Consistent inclusion of all parents and families has led to greater support. At Bear, even grandparents are involved and this involvement has brought Bear even more success.

 Celebrating Success

Hard work leads to positive pay off for Bear Exploration Center. The Blue Ribbon designation is the highest level of recognition the school has received. In the past, the school was recognized locally and by MSA but recognition from the federal government marks a major triumph for the elementary school.  Ms. Hill says that Bear has been steadily doing quality work for years. Hill says that she knew that their continuous innovation and dedication to their mission would ultimately lead to recognition. She and her staff could not be more excited about their latest achievement. For Bear, Blue Ribbon designation validates their project-based approach and consistent hard work. Not only is Bear celebrating their success in 2015 this year with Blue Ribbon Mondays (students and staff wear Blue Ribbon tees on Monday) but they close out each school year with celebration as well.

Celebration is another integral part of what they do. Hill explains, “All students are treated to a field trip, usually to the movie theater (complete with popcorn and soft drink) to see a movie that is related to our overall school theme for the year. For example, one year our theme was Pirates – we saw the animated movie by Dreamworks, The Pirates! Band of Misfits; the year that our theme was The Food Network, we saw Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. The year that the theme was Jungle or Safari – we went to the Montgomery Zoo. We take 10 buses filled with kindergarten through fifth grade students, all teachers and office staff members on this end of the year field trip to celebrate the successes of the year.”

Bear Exploration Center proves that hard work, commitment to theme, creative thinking, fun and exploratory learning all lead to student success and a thriving school environment.

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Posted October 2016