Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Ortega School Struggles for Recognition; but Museum Studies Program Helps to Win Back Duval Parents

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Ortega School Struggles for Recognition; but Museum Studies Program Helps to Win Back Duval Parents

Article excerpt

Byline: Denise Smith Amos

At Ortega Elementary most walls are covered, top to bottom, with students' history, science or art projects.

There are student-designed spaceships, a massive blueprint of Ellis Island's immigrant center done by third-graders, replicas of bald eagles and eggs in a nest, a 25-foot long partial cut-out of the Statue of Liberty's foot on the floor, and family trees and many more exhibits.

Even the principal's office is decorated to resemble a medieval castle.

Every Ortega student, from kindergarten to fifth grade, is a "docent" or a "curator," able to speak at length about projects or research they and their classmates did.

During a tour last week, Ben Norton, a kindergartener, explained that bald eagles aren't bald; their name comes from an old English word - piebald - which means "white headed."

Yiszel Hernandez, a third-grader, explained that the miniature Aztec pyramid, Day of the Dead mask and photo of her uncles playing Indian drums are all part of her exhibit on her family's Mexican and Indian heritage.

Ortega's Museum Studies Institute, a magnet program, "allowed students to see [class] content come alive," said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, calling it cross-over learning.

During that daytime tour, some students dressed in white lab coats with NASA logos and talked about space travel to Mars and the moon, various technological advancements and their future careers in science. Others showed off paper wigs, beards and hats they made to resemble George Washington or Abraham Lincoln as they discussed famous speeches.

Ortega's students and teachers get training and assistance from local museums such as MOCA, MOSH, and Cummer and from a national group that develops museum schools. The school also holds tours and "exhibit nights" to give the community a museum experience and students practice hosting.

School board member Becki Couch said after the tour that realtors from the area had been invited but none came that day. Instead, she said, she has heard some recommend to homebuyers that they send their children to nearby St. Mark's, a private elementary school.

This B-rated school has one of the "five best museum studies programs in the nation," said Stephanie Brannan, principal. Yet Ortega Elementary struggles to get recognition from the surrounding community, Couch and some parents said.

Vitti has challenged all Duval principals to develop and market themes or career focuses at their schools, to win back Duval parents and students. Ortega is a good example, he said.

"That's the vision, to have that defining theme or multiple programs and use that as the magnet to attract parents," he said. "The average parent is motivated more by programs and not necessarily by the grades received as far as reading, math or science. …

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