Springfield Academy of Exploration
Students of SPS's Academy of Exploration cut the ribbon on September 21, 2023. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

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Haden Long signed her daughter, Elliot Long, up for several of Springfield Public Schools’ SPS Choice programs. Their hopes were riding high that Elliot would get picked for the Academy of Exploration. 

“This is the one that she really wanted out of all of them, and she was fortunate enough to get drawn,” Long said. “We feel like we really did win the lottery.” 

The Long family was part of a group of more than 100 students, family members, teachers and other district officials to celebrate a ribbon cutting for the program’s new home. Formerly located in the Discovery Center, the program is now housed in the former Fairview Elementary, located outside Hillcrest High School. 

Students excited about new space

Vivian Brothers shows off a python named Monty at SPS’s Academy of Exploration. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

What used to be run out of two classrooms now has a full makerspace, offering students a shop area with work tables, tools and supplies. There are also several classrooms, reading areas and other spaces where students can stretch out. 

That makerspace is already a hit with students, who on Thursday showed visitors parts of the newly renovated school.

“There is way more space than there was before,” said fifth-grader Calli Deatherage. “And there is also way more time to do stuff.” 

Fifth-grader Kennedi Rivers can’t wait to start using the area of the makerspace devoted to food preparation and other culinary arts. As she showed visitors some features in the makerspace, she had her eyes fixed on the side of the room with all the kitchen equipment.

“I want to learn how to cook more,” Rivers said. “I like cooking stuff, so I would like to learn more.”

One particular reading room is the favorite spot for fifth-grader Emily Boyer. 

“I love the reading room so much,” Boyer said. “It’s very comfortable, and I like how they designed it, because there are big chairs, and a little couch that is really long, and ottomans.”

“It’s not like a normal school,” said Elliot Long, a fifth-grader. “You learn more stuff through projects instead of just sitting in a classroom. It’s much more fun.” 

STEM emphasis

Girls at SPS’s Academy of Exploration encourage people to smell the basil they are growing in the kitchen. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Part of the SPS Choice programming, Academy of Exploration is a STEM-focused program that teaches state curriculum through a lens of project-based learning. 

The demand for it is high, said Ben Hackenwerth, chief strategic and innovation officer for Springfield Public Schools. 

“Our goal was to grow the program, because the demand far exceeded the number of seats,” Hackenwerth said. “When we completed the bond project at Hillcrest High School, it opened this up, so we thought it would be a great place to remodel.”

The renovation offered SPS a chance to add sixth graders interested in the program — and it will add fourth graders next school year. Previously, the program was open only to fifth graders. 

Gaining access is not easy, Hackenwerth said, because of the limited number of spots available. At full capacity, the program will handle about 150 students, he said. But access is not restricted to high-performing or low-achieving students. 

“The biggest difference is that there is not an academic qualifier,” Hackenwerth said. “We do ask that students have good attendance and behavior, but any student can apply. The activities we do are suitable for any student.”

Natalie Schifsky, lead teacher at the Academy of Exploration, has been teaching in elementary classrooms for 18 years. She said, joking, that she tended to be a rule-bending teacher, trying to find ways of jumping outside the box. The STEM-focused Academy of Exploration removes the box completely, she said. 

“STEM education allows kids to really be an engineer,” Schifsky said. “Being able to cultivate that, especially in middle years where kids might lose their love of learning, instead gets them the exact opposite. They become super passionate and inquisitive. 

Parents excited for opportunity

Fifth-grader Kennedi Rivers shows attendees some of the tools and supplies available in Academy of Exploration’s makerspace. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

The emphasis on STEM fields gets parents excited about sending their students to a school far away from their usual sending zones. Emily Boyer’s mother, Kaylea Gagliardi, entered a tech-related career field a few years ago, and saw so many doors open up for her, someone who already had a job. 

“You’re not going to have the opportunity to learn  in a normal school the way that you get to learn in this kind of environment,” Gagliardi said. “(Boyer) wants to be a doctor when she grows up, so this is spot on with what is in her mind at this point.”

Long said though school hasn’t been going for long, her daughter is already having a great year. 

“She is very much a hands-on learner, because she loves to build and create, and take things at her own pace,” Long said. “We’re only a month in, but she is having a great year.”

Joe Hadsall

Joe Hadsall is the education reporter for the Springfield Daily Citizen. Hadsall has more than two decades of experience reporting in the Ozarks with the Joplin Globe, Christian County Headliner News and 417 Magazine. Contact him at (417) 837-3671 or jhadsall@sgfcitizen.org. More by Joe Hadsall