When Jenifer Kunnen first began the annual project of having her third-graders track Iditarod mushers in 2008, she incorporated lessons on science, social studies, reading and math.
From writing daily journals on mushers' treks to logging miles and tracking teams' progression via GPS, studies became adventures.
"It started small one year and grew and grew," Kunnen said of the Iditarod project. "I use the Internet a lot with my children, and so do many of the teachers here."
Whatever Kunnen and the other teachers at St. Cecelia Interparochial Catholic School are doing, it must be working.
St. Cecelia is among the U.S. Department of Education's 2010 Blue Ribbon Schools, a program that honors public and private schools that are high performing or have improved student achievement to high levels, especially among disadvantaged students.
St. Cecelia earned the recognition in the high performing category for its math and reading scores. It was among only seven Florida schools so honored this year.
"Scores are what you look at for performance, but there's a huge application behind that success," said principal Mary Beth Scanlon, who has been at St. Cecelia 12 years, seven as principal.
"We have art, Spanish and music, and the cohesiveness of everybody working to get a child to be successful. One of the school's successes is that our teachers realize each student learns differently."
Scanlon and Beth Lusnia, exceptional student education and academic support teacher, will attend the 2010 Blue Ribbon Schools Award ceremony on Nov. 15-16 in Washington, D.C., where 254 public and 50 private schools will be honored.
The Education Department has had the program since 1982.
"Being named a Blue Ribbon School is the highest honor the government annually bestows upon schools that are making a difference," said David Thomas, spokesman for the Department of Education. "Schools honored with the Blue Ribbon Schools award are committed to achievement and to ensuring that students learn and succeed.
"Their work reflects the conviction that every child has promise and must receive a quality education."
Blue Ribbon high performing schools are in the top 10 percent of all schools on state assessment reading and math scores in the latest year of reported tests.
Although St. Cecelia makes the grade as a high performing school, not every student is perfect. The school takes pride in offering extra teacher attention and test time.
"Sometimes, kids don't have the basic math facts or steps down," said Lusnia of Clearwater. "When older kids stand at the board and use a process of steps to achieve their answer, it builds confidence. They have a moment to shine."
Learning doesn't only take place in class.
Tuesdays at lunchtime means Math Munchers — students who need math help meet up with a teacher — and Math Crunchers — students willing to offer math pointers.
Eighth-grader Amanda Vaughan is a Cruncher who intends to become a patent attorney.
"I've always loved math since I was little," said Amanda, 13. "I'd get so excited thinking we're borrowing (as in subtraction) in school today."
Kage Jewell, 14, is an eighth-grader passionate about science.
"When I was little, my dad would take me into the forest and show me plants and animals and how they worked in the outside world," said Kage, who credits those journeys, his St. Cecelia science teachers Renee Klee and Heather Manter, and his own curiosity for wanting to become a forensic scientist.
And while math and science are both important, reading is fundamental.
"A positive attitude and knowing they can succeed is key," said Leah Steele of Belleair, sixth- and seventh-grade language arts teacher. "I have high expectations of students and a lot of success with reluctant readers.
"In middle school, students can choose books they want to read, along with what is set curriculum. Peer involvement, reports with student creating their own visuals, and chats about the books students are reading, all help to get middle school fever going."