By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
Erica Sleek believes that kids can learn far more by doing. The proof of that is in their enthusiasm, their inquisitiveness, and their creations – not the scores on some state-ordered testing.
So Sleek, who has operated All About the Kids learning center for 13 years in Bowling Green, is expanding to offer preschool through high school education at the new Sleek Academy.
The academy will practice the same theory Sleek has been using for years – project-based learning. When they are learning about space, they go to the BGSU planetarium. When they are learning about plants, they go to Klotz Greenhouse. When they are learning about produce, they go to an orchard, pick apples and cook up applesauce.
“It’s getting them to figure things out themselves,” Sleek said.
For example, the older students are in the process of researching how to build a walipini – an underground greenhouse. All About the Kids has had a garden over the years, but a walipini would allow for year-round fruit and vegetable production. The produce would be eaten by students, and the extras would be given to local food pantries, Sleek said.
The students are involved in every step of the process. They researched how the garden is built. They wrote letters for seed donations. They are creating a kickstarter video. They are applying for the necessary city permit. And they even researched child labor laws.
“They are pretty deep thinkers,” said Kris Westmark, assistant principal.
Sleek Academy focuses on STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. But it takes those lessons a step further, Sleek said.
“Part of STEAM is giving back to the community,” she said. “We want our students to know their community.”
Recently, some of the older students did just that when they visited the Cocoon shelter for people affected by domestic violence. They learned about the services offered.
“I was struggling to not cry,” Alexandra, a student, said.
The students asked how they could help – and were told the Cocoon residents could use a picnic table for outside.
“They had no chairs to sit on outside,” Sara said.
“We started researching about abuse in general and how to build a table,” Duncan said.
The students got some repurposed wood, and went to work. Isobel described how they used hammers, screwdrivers, pliers and crowbars. Once constructed, they painted the picnic table and signed their names underneath.
Then they delivered the table to the Cocoon.
“I just felt good about myself for making something for someone else,” Daniel said. “It was nice to give back.”
“People at the Cocoon don’t have much to sit on. It felt good,” Sara said.
The students took it a step further and created posters to place around Bowling Green listing items needed at the Cocoon.
“Basically we fixed up flyers to put around town to get people to donate stuff,” Chloe said. Those items included diapers, toothpaste, shampoo, peanut butter, juice and more.
For 13 years, Sleek and her staff have been offering care for infants through preschool age children. During the summer, kindergarten through sixth graders also attended. Over the years, parents unhappy about standardized state tests have asked Sleek to offer project-based learning year round.
The project-based learning allows greater student participation in the learning process, she said.
“We want them to make mistakes and work to find solutions,” Sleek said.
So Sleek started looking for land for the new school. She ended up finding the perfect site right across the street from All About the Kids, on Ordway Avenue. The existing 12,000-square-foot building on the site has been gutted and is being built into classrooms. Plans call for the addition of a gym later, plus the building of a path and pond on the property behind the school.
The academy is operating with some students now, but will be able to open fully once the building renovations are completed. The school will have one teacher to every 20 students in the kindergarten through fifth grade classes. The ratio will be one teacher to every 25 students for older classrooms.
The goal is for 15 classrooms, two kitchens and two cafeterias. Students in the younger classes will eat family style.
Sleek hopes to see enrollment of 100 to 150 students. The academy will be a private school, with no state funding, she said. Parents will pay tuition for their children to attend.
As a private school, while the students will still have to meet state standards, they will not have to take state tests.
“We don’t have to teach to the test,” she said.
The students do not have any homework. However, parents have reported to Sleek that students willingly continue their coursework at home.
“A parent said her child told her, ‘Hurry up. I need to get home to research this,’” she said.
And parents have said their children are now excited about going to school.
“That’s exactly what we wanted,” Sleek said. “It’s pretty stunning to see their minds working.”