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There aren’t many elementary schools just blocks from the beach, and fewer still with a waterfront campus.
But Anna Maria Elementary in Manatee County is just such a place, ideal for Florida’s first Guy Harvey Academy of Arts and Sciences.
It’s a collaboration between the iconic artist and conservationist’s nonprofit foundation and Manatee County Schools. Open about a year and a half, the school’s first cohort of fifth graders is set to graduate in June. To many of them, school is fun again.
“I like it more now,” said fifth-grader Kason Price, who has been in the program since its inception last year.
“I just love learning about all the animals and like getting to know them way better,” said Mazzy Cacic, another fifth grader. “I would have never known all these animals (if it wasn’t) for Guy Harvey.”
“We live next to the Gulf of Mexico, (so) we definitely have a lot more responsibility compared to a country, or a state in the middle of the U.S.,” Price said. “Learning about how these animals live and what we’re doing to them, and doing to this Earth that’s messing up their animal ecosystems…”
Anna Maria Elementary promotes conservation
The goal of the program is to increase awareness of coastal conservation and showcase career paths.
“Being on an island, the families out here have a very high interest in protecting the environment and having their kids be educated on conservation,” said Mike Masiello, principal of Anna Maria Elementary.
The curriculum blends science and art to explain conservation topics such as invasive species, the effects of pollution and more. The program has completed ambitious art projects, such as a life-size model of a whale shark last year, as well as technological immersion with the use of virtual reality goggles.
Following graduation from Anna Maria Elementary, students in the program have the option to continue the education track at academies under development for King Middle School and Manatee High School. These additions provide students an educational path from elementary to graduation and prepare them for college applications and careers.
Guy Harvey STEM program sees success
The academy is a key example of the expansion of innovative programs within the school district and is one of the most ambitious projects to date.
“We consider ourselves one of the top school districts in the state when it comes to innovative programs,” said Kevin Chapman, the School District of Manatee County’s chief of staff. “We like to be on the edge of providing these opportunities for students… career, technical and educational opportunities for the future.”
Though these programs are not designed to compete with homeschool or private school programs, they aim to keep up with the newest educational standards and provide parents with alternative curriculum options within public schools.
“It helps us compete with some of the private schools in the area, as far as having some specific interests for their kids to come and learn,” said Masiello.
Pidge Barreda, the STEM teacher at Anna Maria Elementary has worked at the school for 27 years and helped steward the development of the Guy Harvey Academy’s curriculum. She believes that the program offers parents a cost-effective way to access educational experiences equal to private schools in the area.
“In conversations with parents, (I hear) ‘Why pay for private school when we’re possibly getting a better education here?’” said Barreda, “Our program size contributes to that… (but) you can see how the kids get engaged, they take that enthusiasm home to their parents, and those parents talk to other parents.”
The majority of the students that attend Anna Maria Elementary attend from off-island. Since the program began, the application process for the tiny school, where most classes average 20 students or less, has been much more competitive.
“We did have a few more inquiries at the beginning of the school year to come here based on the fact that we have the Marine Science program,” said Masiello. “Since we’re a small school, we only have limited space, but as a whole, parents welcome the opportunity to send their kids to a school that had a specific program of interest — particularly marine science and conservation, which is very popular right now.”
With a recent $2 million state appropriation for expansion of the program, Masiello intends for a portion of the funds to be utilized for having more curriculum written by the Guy Harvey Foundation and putting in an outdoor learning space on the back playground, which has waterfront access to the intracoastal waterway.
Masiello’s vision is to install a dock that would allow boat trips from the campus, and allow the academy to serve as a launching point for other schools to visit for field trips and model curricula in their own classrooms.
Catherine Hicks is a reporter for the Community News Collaborative. She can be reached at [email protected].
This story was originally posted December 29, 2023, 3:00 PM.