by Danielle Dodder
As San Marco Road winds toward Goodland it becomes a green stretch of natural beauty. On about 6 acres of land that could have just as easily become more development, a unique learning center may have the chance to grow. The Marco Island Academy signed a temporary lease and is planning to take the first steps towards integrating the natural surroundings into both the school’s design and its curriculum.
The mangroves, gopher tortoises and other natural life are what will make Marco Island Academy a living classroom. From its inception, the academy was meant to incorporate Florida’s ecosystem into its curriculum and green design into its building concept. MIA President Jane Watt found the location fit the school’s needs perfectly.
“We are really excited to have the tortoises and other wildlife here. We can work in their environment as we build the school and draw on the nature in our backyard for the students to learn from,” explained Watt.
Several key experts have been on board with the school from its design phase, and they will be playing lead roles as the concept now becomes reality. Dr. William Browning is an industry expert on eco-friendly building design and a founding member of the US Green Building Council. He walked the property with Watt while she was considering the lease and will now help MIA through the building stage.
“He will be advising us on what building materials to use, design and placement of the modulars, ways to maximize energy efficiency,” says Watt. Incorporating elements like solar panels will help them find low-cost ways to be green.
The tortoises themselves are meant to be permanent residents on school grounds. Watt is mapping out the burrows, which will be protected during the building process. As a former student in Ohio, Watt recalls the limited opportunities to study science concepts like marine biology outside of a textbook. “We have a wealth of natural resources that’s like nothing else in the nation. We have Everglades, an ocean and estuaries in our backyard.”
Dr. Richard Murphy is the Director of Education for Jacques Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society. Also on board from the beginning, he will return once MIA has a science faculty in place to help create the curriculum. “He plans to study the school site and surrounding areas like Rookery Bay and Tigertail. The curriculum is more relevant to students when they can go beyond a textbook,” says Watt.
Watt points out that although not all students are science-oriented, their interest is better piqued when the content is something they can see and study. “STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) as a course of study is paramount to our education system. As a nation we continue to struggle with teaching these concepts well.”
Through all the challenges Watt has faced while bringing the Marco Island Academy from a dream into reality, she found keeping a steady course was easy: “From the first day, my intent has always been serving the best interests of students. When I was faced with difficult decisions, they were made simple for me when I asked what would be best for the students.”