NEW PORT RICHEY
The buses have long departed from Mittye P. Locke Elementary and almost everyone else is gone for the day when members of the school's Top Sea-cret Discoveries Odyssey of the Mind team gather in a narrow hallway to run though an eight-minute skit that has been months in the making.
Their coaches, gifted program teachers Tisha Newton and Jen Greene, are a constant presence, mainly for safety's sake. But it's first- and second-graders deciding what needs fixing. Since late September, they've been putting in countless hours to create a humorous presentation and come up with a most enchanting answer to how the ocean waves are formed.
"They've been working weekends and holidays — whenever they can," Newton said. "They're very dedicated."
They started from scratch, bouncing ideas off each other and using cardboard, fabric material, paint, and lots of glue to create a backdrop and costumes. They recycled things like soda bottles and fast-food cup-holders; rummaged through closets and toy boxes for props.
"It's a lot of fun," said team member Nicholas Greene. "It makes me go out of the box. It makes me think in a different way — my own way."
That's the thought behind Odyssey of the Mind, an international problem-solving competition for students from kindergarten to college. Competition has students solving long-term and spontaneous problems in regional and state competitions, and typically with about 800 team finalists from countries near and far competing at "World."
Top Sea-cret Discoveries is the long-term problem for Locke's primary students. There are criteria: Students have a budget of $125 for materials. Characters must embark on specific tasks such as exploring the ocean, encountering three different types of sea life while presenting the wave-making scenario.
There was this rather messy beluga whale (Lillian Winans, 7) with a penchant for dance parties who ended up creating a bit of a ruckus and making some waves with other creatures of the deep. Dancing it out were a sea otter (Nicholas Greene, 7) a sea lion (Emma Sisco, 8), a couple of human sea explorers (Liam Hendley, 6) and Nicholas Tongco, 7) a silly sea captain spouting a goofy, Southern twang (Catalina Harvey ,7) and believe it or not, a rather sprightly piece of sea plankton (Genavieve Newton, 7) that also happens to be the whale's favorite food.
Lately the team has been stepping it up.
After qualifying at the Gulf Coast regional competition, Locke's Top Sea-cret Discovery team is one of three teams from the school and one of 60 regional teams moving on to state level competition on Saturday at the University of Central Florida.
It's a fine showing for a region that has grown from about 60 to more than 200 regional teams in some 24 years, said Gulf Coast regional director and Weightman Middle gifted teacher Freda Abercrombie. She has participated in OM since the early years, coming on as a coach for her son's team. She has served as regional director for about 15 years and her husband, Bob Rouse, serves as a judge at World competition.
"I really believe in the value of this program for kids — not just gifted kids — it's good for all kids," Abercrombie said. "It values the things that you can't bubble in on a test. I know we have to have assessments to see where students are, but this is about bigger skills than that."
"The unwritten rule in Odyssey is, if it doesn't says you can't, then you can," she said. "OM problems are so complex, so intricate. They require a lot of thought and research and teamwork. It has kids thinking outside the box — the wackier the better."
And feeling a sense of accomplishment, too, said Christine Taylor, a former gifted teacher and volunteer coordinator for OM who has stayed on since retiring in 2007 because she continues to see the impact.
"It is seeing the great pride that the kids have and the feeling that they accomplished something that was really hard," Taylor said. "(Seeing) some kids who thought they could never get in front of a group and perform is pretty amazing. I saw one of my former students who was quite reserved in elementary school who is now in high school perform and I couldn't believe his stage presence."
And some of those kids end up sticking with it long after leaving Pasco County.
Take Amy Ramsay-Wood, 19, a senior majoring in broadcast journalism at the University of Central Florida. She went to world competition four times — once as a student at Seven Springs Middle, again representing Mitchell High and twice as a college student. She also serves as a Gulf Coast regional problem captain and will be judging at Saturday's state competition.
"It has been such a different experience each time," she said. "From the beginning it was more than just a competition for me. I learned more about myself, more about my creativity. I think it was a contributing factor for me getting into college."
And Brienne Gilbo, 29, of Hudson, who works as mental health therapist, competed in OM as a student at Fox Hollow Elementary and Bayonet Point Middle, where she became the youngest member on the regional board.
She's still at it, serving as an alumni representative to help team members stay involved after their competition days are over.
"The greater element of why I still do this is just for the kids," Gilbo said. "I see the impact that it had on me when I was younger. I know what it feels like to … perform something that you created — something to feel very proud about and accomplished in"
"I see it as a really amazing outlet for kids — a way to be involved in the community and in their education," she said. "It helps them make friends. It helps build confidence. It helps them learn skills that the classroom (setting) cannot facilitate — lifelong skills."