By Natalie Strom
As school has just begun in Collier County, students attending the new Marco Island Academy Charter High School should expect a unique learning experience during the school’s inaugural year. Jane Watt, Chairman of the Board of Directors for MIA, has developed an educational program based on the idea of using the diverse ecosystem of Southwest Florida as a learning tool. With the help of a hard-working staff, volunteers and the community, Watt’s dream is becoming a reality. This dream, however, would not have been possible without the help of Dr. Richard Murphy, Director of Science and Education for JeanMichel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society. Marco Island Academy and the Ocean Futures Society have worked together to build this unique style of learning.
Dr. Richard Murphy, who has a PhD in Marine Ecology, has worked closely with the Cousteau family for over forty years. He was an employee at the time the Cousteau Society was formed in 1973 and currently works closely with Jacques Cousteau’s son, Jean-Michel Cousteau through the Ocean Futures Society.
The Society was established by Jean-Michel, an architect by training, to develop the theory of practicing what they preach. Instead of just talking about sustainability and the critical connection between humanity and nature, the Society aims to show how it is possible to live an eco-friendly lifestyle that can also be affordable.
With the inception of an eco-friendly resort set in Fiji in the mid-nineties, this theory was put into practice. Through composting, treating its own sewage, growing seventy to eighty percent of its fruits and vegetables and teaching visitors the importance of sustainability, the Fiji Islands Resort accomplished the task of practicing what they preach. As Dr. Murphy explains, the resort “is a model for sustainable development… it’s giving us a chance to say, yes it is feasible to be environmentally responsible and economically successful.”
This led to the development of the Ambassadors of the Environment. These educational programs, based on using the natural environment as a resource and teaching people how to create a more sustainable life at home, have been developed all over the world. From a University program in Brazil to a local YMCA in California to educational experiences at resorts in Hawaii and Grand Cayman, the Ambassadors of the Environment reaches out to the public in many ways.
Marco Island Academy is next in line to become a part of the Ambassadors of the Environment program. While developing the curriculum for MIA, Jane Watt contacted Dr. Murphy because, “I was sure all the schools in Florida had amazing Marine Science programs, but when I moved down here, I realized the curriculum was the same as anywhere else. How can you live on an island with the ocean all around you and not have a curriculum that matches that?”
In contacting Dr. Murphy, the wheels were put in motion to develop this style of learning. In using the surrounding beaches, mangroves and everglades as living laboratories, students will be able to learn about nature first hand. Other subjects will also be blended together with the study of nature. Dr. Murphy describes this philosophy as “an interdisciplinary way of learning through the infusion of environmental questions into different subject areas.”
One such example that Dr. Murphy described was the ever-changing beaches of Marco Island. He referenced Tigertail Beach as a perfect example for a possible case study for students. “Aerial photo- graphs of the Tigertail region throughout the years can be put into a Geographic In- formation System so the students can statistically plot areas of different vegetation, inter-tidal zones, lagoons, etc. and then watch those and predict those changes through time. It then becomes mathematical, computer driven and of course scientific. It also deals with landscape management and city planning.”
Another example cited by Dr. Murphy during his visit to Marco Island is that of the Calusa Indian shell mounds. Why are they there? This question covers history. At what rate was a shell mound built if it took X amount of buckets and Y amount of trips? This question covers math. A student then writes a paper on the subject and suddenly you have English covered as well. It is also, at the same time, is touching on science and nature.
This unique program comes at a price for MIA. They must agree to build an eco- friendly school. Currently, the school is located at 1450 Winterberry Drive. This will be its temporary home until it moves to a location consisting of mobile units on San Marco Road. This will also be a temporary location until the green-inspired school is built.
The architectural plans ensure that the building will receive a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. This is a crucial commitment in the partnership between MIA and the Cousteau Ocean Futures Society. In order to become LEED certified, the plans for the school include solar power installation, plenty of windows to allow natural light, a green rooftop to deflect heat, high-efficiency toilets and other design elements that will reduce the need for air conditioning and heating. The future plan will also include composting waste and growing gardens in the school’s own open air laboratory.
There is no question that this style of learning will be exciting and successful. The school is currently accepting ninth and tenth graders for its first year. With a capacity of 100 students, MIA is closely reaching that cap with over 85 students enrolled.
The real question is when will the actual school be built? The Marco Island Discovery Center (MIDC) was formed as a non-profit organization to help raise money to get the school under way and will continue to raise money to eventually fund the construction of the eco-friendly school. Their next fundraiser will be held on October 29th at the Marriott. The Second Annual Marco Island Beach Music Festival will be featuring a skim board con- test, best burger in town competition and sand sculptures. Many musicians will be present, including Naples-native, Casey Weston who was recently featured on NBC’s “The Voice.” MIDC, the American Cancer Society of Marco Island, Friends of Rookery Bay and the Marco Island YMCA will all benefit from the proceeds of the event.
Investing in this school, even by attending a beach party, means investing in the education of future generations. As the concept of sustainability becomes more and more pertinent, it is up to the schools to teach these students how to deal with the issues they will face in the near future. This is something that both Dr. Murphy and Jane Watt realize and have been trying to accomplish both independently and together. Of the curriculum itself, Watt explains, “it’s become a shared mission.
So much of what we (MIA) were looking to do was in direct alignment with what he (Dr. Murphy) already does. So it’s been a wonderful opportunity for collaboration.”
To learn more about Marco Island Academy visit their website at www.marcoislandacademy.com. To learn more or purchase tickets for the Marco Island Beach Music Festival, visit www.marcoislandmarriott.com/music_fest.html