OAKLEAF – While the first day of school is no doubt filled with a number of different emotions, ranging from nervousness to enthusiastic, sad to happy, no set of students might be more excited than the ones entering through the doors of Discovery Oaks Elementary.
Each year, every school has students entering its doors for the first time. In high school, it’s always the freshmen, in junior high, it’s always the seventh graders and so on. But DOE students find themselves in a unique position, a position no other group of kids have been in for the last eight years in Clay County. The $23 million Oakleaf-area school is the first new Clay County district school built in eight years and the first ever to be built debt-free.
“It’s day one and I’ve seen so much energy so far,” Clay County Superintendent Addison Davis said. “The enthusiasm you see that these students have as you walk through the hallways is just so exciting. It’s contagious and you see and feel the culture of being an A school district.”
Davis is confident it will join the ranks of some of Clay County’s best schools. And he’s not the only one. DOE Principal Tracy McLaughlin, who has 26 years of experience in education with eight of those years served as a Clay County principal, is excited to take on the challenge of shooting for an A in year one.
“I don’t look at [getting an A] as pressure,” said McLaughlin. “I look at it as more of a challenge and an opportunity to learn. We selected teachers that are willing to collaborate with each other, who have the mindset to understand that STEAM is in everything we do. It’s not just a class but it's something embedded deeply within our curriculum.”
For years, schools have focused on science, technology, engineering and math, and as a result, they’ve been dubbed STEM schools. Discovery Oaks expands on that by serving as the first-ever STEAM school in Clay County. DOE will focus on the four pillars of STEM, but it’s added a fifth pillar: art.
“We looked specifically for teachers who understood our vision for STEAM,” McLaughlin said. “STEAM … is an integral part of our curriculum and it’s something we’re all looking forward to building real-world problem solvers with.”
As a STEAM school, DOE stands not only at the forefront of technological innovation in education, but as a state-of-the-art learning facility built to tap into the strengths and weaknesses of each student.
In every classroom, the desks can be broken apart and molded together to form a larger desk. For example, during a test, each student might sit at a desk isolated from others, but when it’s time for a group project, the kids can put their desks together to serve as one big table. Many of these tables are made of the same material as dry erase board, so students can problem solve together right there on the desk.
While some students have no problem sitting still in their seats, some students simply cannot sit still. For that, DOE has cylinder-shaped stools that roll around a circular base, allowing the student to sit, but move ever-so-slightly on their stool, so as to accommodate their desire to not sit still, and the student can do so without distracting others.
When they’re not solving a math problem together with markers on their desks, they might be completing research on their brand-new Chromebooks. From grades three through six, technology will be used on a one-to-one basis meaning, that for each student, there is a Chromebook assigned to them to use in the classroom when the teachers allow. From grades kindergarten to second, this ratio will be two-to-one. The cafeteria is home to an 84-inch flat screen television and each classroom has a large semi-interactive TV that allows teachers and students to integrate it into things such as lessons or presentations.
This dedication to technology is even present in the school’s security. Throughout each of the halls and in the rooms of the school, there are inconspicuous cameras placed strategically to keep DOE secure. To enter a building, a code must be keyed into a keypad before opening the door and when not in use, every single Chromebook is locked up in a subtle but secure storage cage.
Davis pointed out that Clay County was one of the only counties in Florida who were able to meet new state legislative requirements to place some form of added protection in every school. This could be done with the use of police officers, outside security agencies and trained guardians. In Clay County, every high school and junior high will have a school resource officer present on campus during school hours, while each elementary school will have a guardian at all times. While there are those opposed to the use of guardians – with many of that belief desiring the utilization of an SRO instead – Davis is confident in the district’s use of guardians.
“We received over 90 applicants for the 30 positions we needed filled and with that, you can see how truly dedicated to the safety of our students this community is,” Davis said. “They want our kids to be secure.”
According to Davis, the guardians selected by the school district have a combined 500 hours of protection service, including 227 hours of military experience, 214 years of law enforcement, 47 years of firefighting and EMT services and 35 years of private investigation service. Each of the guardians went through 144 hours of training, including psychological evaluations, practice handling a gun and more.
“Each of these guardians have the mindset and the care that this district so rigorously desire of them,” Davis said. “If the day were to ever come that an unwanted event took place in one of our schools, I’m confident we have the right people in the right positions to do what needs to be done to ensure that our students remain safe.”
On opening day, DOE’s student count sat near 825, which is 85 percent of the school’s capacity, according to Michael Kemp, assistant superintendent of operations.
“We always try to shoot for 85 percent [of a school’s capacity] to allow room for future growth,” Kemp said.
At DOE, there is plenty of room for future growth, with plots of land already designated as one-day homes to new classrooms. As part of the commitment to school safety, none of these potential-new classrooms will come in the form of portables, according to Kemp. If new classrooms are ever built, they’ll be built on the 33-acre site of the school that’s roughly 110,000 square feet.
Each of the classrooms at the school today have an average of 900 square feet. DOE is home to one registered nurse, 52 teachers, 2,000 square feet of covered play area that houses four basketball hoops and 10,000 square feet of playgrounds.
As the Clay County School Board, school district faculty, Davis and McLaughlin toured the school together just hours into the district’s first day of the 2018-19 school year, each person present exuded extreme excitement, almost as if it was their first day of school at DOE.
Board members Carol Studdard, Mary Bolla, Janice Kerekes and Betsy Condon all found themselves surprised by something the school had available to students more than once. Condon and Kerekes watched as Bolla attempted to raise Studdard’s hair off her head using one of the science labs’ electrostatic generators. Davis found himself kneeling beside the desk of students quite a few times, asking them about their first day so far, what they thought of the school and more, with each student responding with a level of excitement that matched Davis. McLaughlin joined a classroom icebreaker exercise with some third graders, which left many students smiling.
“Often times, we celebrate the end of the school year but in [Clay County], it’s evident that education matters and because of that, we celebrate the first day of school as we open the doors to students and try to help them be successful,” Davis said. “Our work begins today.”