Editor’s Note: Susan Nations is the Principal of Wilkinson Elementary and was selected as the Sarasota County School District Teacher of the Year in 2005.
". . . the arts have been an inseparable part of the human journey; indeed, we depend on the arts to carry us toward the fullness of our humanity. We value them for themselves, and because we do, we believe knowing and practicing them is fundamental to the healthy development of our children's minds and spirits. That is why, in any civilization - ours included - the arts are inseparable from the very meaning of the term 'education.' We know from long experience that no one can claim to be truly educated who lacks basic knowledge and skills in the arts."
–National Standards for Arts Education
“Would you consider having a STEM -- Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- focus in your new school?” I was asked this question shortly after being named the Principal of Wilkinson Elementary in May of 2016. My response was simple, but encompassed my core beliefs about learning and young children: “Yes, I love that! But if I am the leader, it must be STEAM. Without the arts, the program would be lacking, and I believe with my whole heart that ‘enrichment breeds achievement.'” I know that the arts are, as the National Statement for Arts Education (above) notes: “fundamental to the healthy development of our children’s minds and spirits.” I knew that the STEAM focus would need rich experiences and I was excited to tap into the power of the EdExploreSRQ program, and its focus on experiential learning, to make it a reality. With a population of almost 80% on Free and Reduced Lunch, my only challenge was to find the funding sources to meaningfully bring programs and experiences to the students.
Having experienced the work of Florida Studio Theatre for many years as a Literacy and Data Coach at another Sarasota County School, I knew this program that integrates the arts with learning was one I wanted to investigate and bring to our campus. This comprehensive program includes theatre experience, in-class workshops, and working with professional actors. Faculty were thrilled to bring this school-wide program to our campus—many had never experienced it before—and to know that they would be able to take their students to a real theatre experience in our beautiful city and benefit from the more intimate learning through workshops at the school site and in the classroom was encouraging. It wasn’t long after my initial STEAM conversation that I learned that the Community Foundation of Sarasota County would be a funding source for us to create Wilkinson’s new “Full STEAM Ahead” program with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics. How grateful I was!
When students returned from the fall play, they were filled with excitement as they retold the story of The Velveteen Rabbit to anyone who would listen. And watching them soak in the Ready Set, Write! in school workshop was exciting as they all considered the challenge to write their own plays!
Teachers at Wilkinson then encouraged students to submit their plays—and one of our fourth-grade students, Makayla, received an honorable mention for her submission, The New Family Members the Under Six program. It was a thrill to take this young playwright to the theatre along with her family and her teacher to see the full scope of the Write A Play program. All this because of the generous donation from the Community Foundation of Sarasota County!
Of course, there is a concern for how to continue to fund any program with recurring costs when considering the future of this program at Wilkinson. But the enthusiasm of teachers, parents, and community members when we discussed whether to use our School Advisory Council funds to provide this experience for the coming year was heard loud and clear when they gave it a resounding “yes!”
In addition to the funds from The Community Foundation of Sarasota County, we also received a school-wide grant from the Education Foundation of Sarasota County which allowed us to further bring EdExploreSRQ STEAM experiences to students through in-class explorations and field trips. Because of the enthusiasm of teachers and students for the Write a Play program, they were eager to bring improv lessons focused on STEM to the fourth and fifth grades, and Reader’s Theatre with a science focus to third grade. I know these workshops were richer because of the involvement of our staff and students in the Write a Play program this year. And the students definitely had a broad range of experiences that increased their knowledge and understanding of the world around us.
There is no question that we are truly moving full STEAM ahead at Wilkinson. And we are beyond grateful for our community partners like The Community Foundation of Sarasota County and their strong partnership with The Patterson Foundation who are so committed to ensuring these experiential learning opportunities are available to all students in our county regardless of income level. It is because of community connections and partnerships such as this that the Wilkinson community will be able to take each step in creating an integrated learning experience for all students—a true win for all!