By Lori White and Larry Thompson
Sarasota, Florida – As technology becomes an ever more pervasive element of modern life, the concern is often voiced that it will severely diminish both the frequency and quality of human interaction. In Sarasota County, community collaboration has demonstrated that in the right hands, technology has as much potential to enhance interpersonal connections as to undermine them.
A website called EdExploreSRQ.com was launched in August 2011 to expand opportunities for students to access the amazing array of experiences the community has to offer in the arts, science, culture and history. The site is managed by the Sarasota County School District in partnership with the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, the Science and Environment Council of Sarasota County and the Education Foundation of Sarasota County. It has streamlined the process for connecting teachers and students with more than 150 unique experiences provided by 32 community organizations and 20 individual teaching artists.
Field trips and special classroom presentations have been an important element of public education for decades. Visiting a farm or a museum, attending a concert or watching a play have helped generations of students connect to the world outside the classroom and stimulated their interest in art and culture.
In recent years, however, the volume of material that must be covered to meet testing requirements has rendered instructional time so precious that teachers are reluctant to schedule activities that are not clearly related to state standards and benchmarks. The situation has been further exacerbated by rising costs and eroding resources. School budgets for travel have been reduced to near zero.
Teachers who recognized the value of experiential learning opportunities were left to their own devices in identifying appropriate experiences for their students, evaluating the benefits, and arranging the activities. The limited availability of information often prevented willing service providers from connecting with potential beneficiaries.
Fortunately for local students and teachers as well as area arts, science and cultural organizations, The Patterson Foundation (TPF) has focused considerable energy on developing “connective tissue” among community organizations to help identify resources and enhance collaboration. TPF conducted a study that identified 34 organizations that offered more than 200,000 individual experiential educational activities for K-12 students. They also recognized that creating a convenient data base for teachers to identify activities directly related to the standards being taught in their classrooms could vastly improve the relevance of student experiences of art and culture to what they were learning in school.
EdExploreSRQ.com provides teachers with information about a wide variety of “explorations” offered to students by participating artistic, scientific, cultural and historical organizations and teaching artists in Sarasota County. The organizations and artists have worked with the district curriculum staff to create explorations that are aligned to current state standards and benchmarks and are organized to coincide with the instructional calendar at every grade level.
A teacher who is interested in having her students visit a museum or scientific facility can search the EdExploreSRQ.com site by grade level, subject and date of exploration to find a selection of activities that fit her students’ interests and needs.
Explorations also include opportunities for students to take virtual field trips or watch performances through interactive web cam connections and for teachers to invite representatives of participating organizations to visit classrooms. The individual teaching artists trained through the Arts and Cultural Alliance present lessons in a wide variety of media.
The Education Foundation provides exploration grants as an additional funding source for individual classes, grade levels or entire schools to participate. The Patterson Foundation provided a 500K matching grant for generous donors who support cultural experiences.
As EdExploreSRQ.com celebrates its first anniversary, teachers across the school district are reporting that the site has significantly expanded access for students to explore and experience the rich artistic, scientific and cultural resources in Sarasota County. The students who visit a museum, see a play, hear a concert or study marine life through an exploration benefit directly from the knowledge gained and indirectly from visiting places many of them would not otherwise experience.
Expanding their awareness of the world around them also helps students appreciate a broader context for what they learn in their classrooms. If that awareness encourages students to enroll in arts classes, the benefits expand significantly. The research is abundant regarding the positive relationship between enrollment in arts classes and academic success.
The participating organizations also benefit when families learn more about the wide variety of activities offered by arts and cultural organizations in the community. EdExploreSRQ.com gives the organizations a deeper reach into the community and helps them develop their future patrons.
Ultimately, the entire community benefits from the strong collaboration among educational, artistic, scientific and cultural organizations in Sarasota County. That relationship and mutual support is recognized as a model for school districts and communities across Florida.
Congratulations to EdExploreSRQ.com for providing a groundbreaking example of how technology in the right hands can help students discover the world beyond the computer screen. With the remarkable success it has enjoyed before its first birthday, EdExploreSRQ.com is surely destined for greatness when it grows up.