Ribbon Cutting Ceremony of the Discovery School on May 10th, 2022. (GIF by Shannon Cay Bowers)

When the COVID-19 pandemic sent schools closing and parents scrambling to find help with their kids, the Discovery Center Springfield staff stepped into the void to offer free child care to health care workers in the area.

That free child care evolved into an educational program that has become the Discovery School, a private institution for grades K-8. And, with a $1 million prize in hand, that school hopes to change the world of education.

“One of the craziest things we did is start a school during a pandemic,” said Rob Blevins, executive director of Discovery Center and Discovery School. “That seems counterintuitive. When everybody else was closing down or not accepting students, we wanted them here five days a week. But we did that with science in mind and took every sort of measure we could to keep kids safe.”

That school is still open, located inside the Discovery Center, a science center for children. It’s located downtown. Discovery School provides hands-on learning with a specialty in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. And despite being new, it’s already award-winning.

Discovery Center is the winner of the inaugural STOP Award, from the Center for Education Reform and Forbes. It honors sustainable, transformational, outstanding, permissionless education. The award, presented in New York City, carried with it a $1 million prize. The announcement was made in December 2021, but the thrill hasn’t worn off yet.

“It is an amazing feeling,” Blevins said. “I was just in shock. Legitimate, true shock. I wasn’t ready at all.”

Plans to expand school efforts

Sign reads Discovery Center to the left and School to the right. (Photo by Shanon Cay Bowers)

But, ready or not, the funds are already in Discovery School’s bank account and helping with building and infrastructure improvements as well as staffing. It will also help with some longterm plans.

“We launched a preschool and it’s helped us get that open,” Blevins said. “We’re going to keep spending the money to grow our school program. We hope to be able to a open high school soon. If it needs to go to scholarships at some point, that can be used toward that. And we’re hoping to be able to build an app.”

Details on the app are hush-hush for now, but it will be a tool for Discovery School parents.

“Essentially we’re hoping to create a way for parents to be more engaged in their kid’s learning process and the curriculum,” Blevins said.

Engaged parents are what the Discovery School team wants. Blevins notes Discovery Center is already an open-book organization, taking part in The Great Game of Business, among other programs.

“We want to do open book learning, too,” he said. “I’d like for parents to be able to know before grade cards come out if their kid is behind. You can’t really do anything if you just get a letter at the end of the year.”

Born of necessity during COVID-19

Inside of one of the classrooms at the Discovery School. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Discovery School was born of necessity. When COVID-19 reached the Springfield area in early 2020, the staff at the Discovery Center stepped in to fill a child care void as schools shut down.

“We stopped what we were doing, we turned off our museum and we became a fully-licensed child care center in five days to provide free child care for hospital workers, health care workers and their families,” Jackie Douglas, Discovery School’s director of education, said at a recent ribbon cutting.

That program moved to the old Everest College building on West Sunshine, with space for 300 children. As the pandemic unfolded, Blevins and his team realized there was another growing need.

“We were only about a week in when we realized these kids weren’t going back any time soon,” Blevins said. “It was getting worse, not better. We became increasingly worried as a team about what was going to happen to their academics. Yes, we can entertain them all day. We can just do child care. But we could also teach them. So we made a concerted effort to make sure they started getting learning. After that first week we had tons of planning meetings and came up with some curriculum ideas that we could implement.”

Discovery School launched in August 2020, after about 2-3 months of preparations, taking over extra classroom space at the Everest College building. As schools re-opened for in-person learning, the need for emergency child care waned and that space was no longer needed. The school moved to the Discovery Center in January 2021, with classrooms taking over what had been the lobby, party rooms and gift shop.

Despite its science center location, the day-to-day experience for a Discovery School student is pretty typical. There are special classes — like art, music and P.E. — and the Park Central Branch Library is within walking distance. The schedule is 8 a.m.-3 p.m., with an after-school program available.

“And parents can drop off as early as 7:30 and that doesn’t cost anything,” Blevins said. “Everything we’ve built, we’ve built around making it easy for working families or single parents to be able to be part of the program. If we could bus we would, but at least we can make our hours accommodating for families. When there is no school we try to do child care those days, free of charge, if we’re able to.”

Individualized education for all students

AJ Exner explains that this school was first envisioned to help with child care during the beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Discovery School highly individualizes learning for its students, whether they are excelling or struggling to get on grade level.

“There’s no ‘Here’s what everyone is working on,’” Blevins said.

Part of the reason Discovery School is able to do that is because of its size. The student-to-teacher ratio is 10:1 and students stay in stable groups of 10, following COVID guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the students are grouped by ages, they are not all following the same lessons.

That approach is already working.

“We began to see when you teach a kid what they’re ready to learn — regardless of their age — their achievement skyrockets,” Douglas said. “We have 10 kids in each room and we teach them what they’re ready to learn. We don’t care how old they are. If they’re a fifth-grader on a third-grade math level, we teach them third-grade math and watch them go to sixth-grade math in about one semester. We let our students go at their own pace and we have some 7-year-olds that are doing sixth-grade work. It’s just really fun to let them learn what they’re ready to learn.”

Success stories roll off the tongue for Discovery School staff. Like the first-grade student who couldn’t read when he arrived. He’s now the second-best reader in his class, behind a student reading at a sixth-grade level.

“He got to read to me the other day when he surpassed his grade level,” Blevins said. “He asked for me to come down to his class so he could read to me. I cried. They were happy tears. I am so proud of him.”

It goes beyond academics, though. Those 10:1 ratios allow staff to get to know students at a much deeper level and meet more than just learning needs

“We look at the individual needs — social, emotional, behavioral, all of those — and we’re able to do that I think well because we have such low ratios,” Blevins said. “Our classes are all 10:1. Your kids will get a lot more attention, one-on-one time with teachers. They know every student’s name and their sibling’s names, their parents’ names, family dynamics and when you know all of those things, you can treat the student more holistically. You know when to handle with care. You can communicate that when you know what is going on at home.”

And some students have a lot going on outside of school.

“Two of our families have lived in transitional housing and we have other low-income students,” Blevins said. “We’ve gotten some kids that are low-hope, too. They just don’t have any idea what they’re going to be in life and they don’t really think they can. To get them back up to grade level is awesome.”

The school partners with the Ozarks Area Community Action Corporation to provide scholarships for students living at 125 percent of the poverty line. The scholarships are full rides, essentially, paying for tuition, after-school care and lunches.

While Discovery School focuses on STEM education, it’s not just a school designed for gifted students or those with a love of science.

“We get a good percentage of gifted kids, but we also get a good percentage of kids that have learning disabilities,” Blevins said. “We get a lot of kids that have had behavioral issues when you’re looking through their student files, and then they’re great when you work with them and get to know them. … You can live anywhere in the Ozarks and go to the Discovery School. It’s a high-quality education option for everybody.”

Discovery School drawing interest from other communities

A proud mother, Jules Mergen, poses with her daughter Nora (8), who attends the Discovery School. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

And it’s an approach Blevins believes can work in other places, too. Science centers and museums in big cities like Chicago, Dallas and Oakland have communicated with Blevins, as has a small-town science center in Colorado. They’re all curious about what is happening in Springfield.

“What we’re doing here is potentially going to change education across the country,” Blevins said. “When I talk to museum directors about this we talk a lot about what is the role of a science center? What is the value of just sticking to informal education? Can you do both and do we have an obligation to do more than just passively educating? A lot of the people I’m talking to feel pretty strongly that passive education is nice but it’s not as important as formal education.”