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Why would Pasco bring advanced Cambridge program to elementary schools?

Students and staff in San Antonio offer insights of things to come.

SAN ANTONIO — Stacey Ramer showed drawings of chickens, pigs and cows to her kindergarten class, as she asked them to share what they know about farm life.

“Which animals use feed bags?" the teacher asked her students, whose hands shot up while they tried not to shout out their answers. “Why is it a good idea to keep chickens in a barn?”

The class had just begun its latest Global Perspectives lesson about where food comes from, and the first step was to start with local information before building to national and international perspectives. Over time, the children would identify questions and concerns about their issue, then learn how to find and present the answers both in small groups and individually.

San Antonio Elementary student Alexis Moats draws an animated cow during a recent Global Perspectives lesson on farming. It's part of the Cambridge International program at the school. [MICHELE MILLER | Times]

Every grade level at San Antonio Elementary had similar tasks. First-graders explored sports, third-graders studied space travel, fifth-graders examined forms of personal communication.

Global Perspectives is one of the special things you do at a Cambridge International school. And children in the program, which San Antonio launched three years ago to feed into offerings at nearby Pasco Middle and Pasco High, said they prefer the approach.

“Cambridge is more hands-on,” fifth-grader Ellie Barnes said, taking a break from reading a Harry Potter novel. “You get to work in groups a lot more. It goes into more detail about the subjects, and I think it’s really helpful.”

“I think everybody should be in Cambridge,” said third-grader Amariah Santiago, “so more people could go to college and be smarter and learn more.”

That opportunity is coming to several west Pasco campuses.

It’s on tap for Northwest, Gulfside, Gulf Trace and Sunray elementary schools in the next few years, as well as for Hudson Middle and Hudson High. These are schools that have gone without any sort of advanced or specialty programs, and district leaders have said they like the promise of success it offers.

Unlike the upper grade-level versions, which offer a specific track of courses that students can follow to get a special diploma, the elementary school level provides a more broad-based approach to thinking and learning, allowing space for both enrichment at the high end and added support for stragglers.

“It’s definitely an everyone-can-do-it thing,” Samantha Del Valle, the district’s assistant director of leading and learning, said of Cambridge and its focus on global mindedness and problem solving.

In addition to the Global Perspectives — which first-grade teacher Sheri Gregory said offers “cool connections” and awareness to “things that are not just San Antonio” — Del Valle pointed specifically to the key learning attributes that the model relies upon as another important component.

Those are confidence, responsibility, reflectiveness, innovation and engagement — all expectations not only of students but also of staff. They’re reinforced on classroom posters, but also in the sentiments that most in the school share.

“There’s so much with the standards that we have to teach. With Cambridge we take it above and beyond that,” Gregory said. “It gives us the ability to stretch their minds. Yes, we want to do that in education all the time. But with Cambridge ... that’s something we have to do.”

Teachers receive special training in how to use the Cambridge model, which can have different expectations in areas such as math and science, and make it work with the state standards. Cambridge also includes extra tests — not high-stakes tests, but rather check points — that need to be woven in.

Second-grader Ian Sonia said the lessons are a little harder than before. Like many others, he referred to going beyond the basics on almost every subject. And then he had this: “I think it’s better than normal school.”

Third-grade teacher Joe Marrah said he, too, likes the depth that the model allows him to get into with his students, including the high-level discussions they have.

“They have a wide range of interests,” Marrah said. “It’s really enjoyable getting to know each kid and what they want to learn about.”

First-grade teacher Megan Fortunato said much of the initiative relies on solid teaching foundations, which need to happen whatever the program. But Cambridge encourages the best to come out, she added, because it supports collaboration, independent thought, investigation and more.

“I think it prepares them for the real world,” Fortunato said. “It takes a while to get them to this point.”

She gestured toward children working ardently in small groups to answer several questions about athletes and sports. They had to figure out what activity they were looking at in pictures, then answer a few questions, such as who plays the sport and what do they use to play it. More research would follow.

“They’ve learned they can disagree with each other, but they have to tell why they disagree, and not be mean about it,” she explained.

Principal Kim Anderson, who introduced Cambridge to Pasco Middle before transferring to San Antonio, said she sees “huge benefits” in giving elementary children the Cambridge curriculum and learning style.

Principal Kim Anderson, who introduced the Cambridge International program to Pasco Middle School before transferring to San Antonio Elementary, said she sees “huge benefits” in giving elementary children the Cambridge curriculum and learning style. [MICHELE MILLER | Times]

“It creates learners who are able to express themselves, especially as writers,” Anderson said.

They learn to read, research, develop opinions and write about those views, she continued, all with a perspective that takes them beyond what they can see at home. It directs students toward the path of the high school Advanced International Certificate of Education diploma, which includes a state Bright Futures scholarship.

Fifth-grader Wyatt Dorr said he saw the value in that.

San Antonio Elementary fifth-grader Wyatt Dorr said he saw the value in the school's Cambridge International program, especially when it came it furthering higher education. “You get a free scholarship by the end of high school if you do good enough,” he said. [MICHELE MILLER | Times]

“You get a free scholarship by the end of high school if you do good enough,” he said, saying the program “definitely” should be offered in more places.

Classmate Christopher Guadarrama saw positives beyond higher education, too.

“I like that when I came to the classroom, we’re a team and we all learn together,” Christopher said. “It’s just a really fun and safe environment. ... It’s a home.”

School leaders from west Pasco, as well as other parts of Florida, have been checking out San Antonio’s effort to see how they can make Cambridge work for them. One of the nice things about it, Anderson said, is that Cambridge is flexible enough to fit into different schools’ needs.

San Antonio started by offering it as a magnet for advanced students, for instance, while other schools plan to begin by implementing it for the entire attendance zone.

Either way, a couple of realities remain, Anderson said.

“You have to have great quality teachers to do it, and they have to buy into the program,” she said. “And it takes growing pains. Every year we are getting better. But it takes learning."