Gibraltar Schools, The Ridges Sanctuary partner on nature-based 4K program
Published by Green Bay Press-Gazette, Christopher Clough – January 20th, 2024
FISH CREEK – The Gibraltar Area School District is offering 4K students the chance to take part next year in one of the most unique learning opportunities around – a mostly outdoor opportunity.
That’s because the school district entered a partnership with The Ridges Sanctuary in Baileys Harbor to add The Ridges’ Dragonfly Nature Preschool 4-year-old kindergarten program to Gibraltar’s existing 4K programs at its elementary school and the Northern Door Children’s Center, starting with the 2024-25 school year. The school board unanimously approved the partnership in its December meeting.
Because the Dragonfly School will be in partnership with a public school system, no charge will be required to attend. The Ridges previously charged tuition for the six years it’s offered the Dragonfly school.
An informational meeting with representatives from all of the district’s 4K programs will take place Thursday evening, Jan. 25, for parents of prospective 4-year-old students in the Gibraltar district to learn more about those programs. Here’s what to know.
What makes it unique
What makes the Dragonfly Nature Preschool unique compared to most 4K programs is that it’s outdoor, nature-based learning. Gibraltar Elementary School principal Lauren Ward said the school district’s other 4K collaboration with the Northern Door Children’s Center features an almost identical program to that offered by Gibraltar.
Ward said a school system entering a cooperative partnership with an outside organization or agency to provide 4K programming or supplement the school’s existing 4K, such as Gibraltar does with the Children’s Center, is not unusual. According to Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction data, 63 of the state’s 421 school districts, about 15%, were doing so as of the 2022-23 school year.
But Ward said as far as she knows, entering a partnership for a nature-based 4K program is rare. The Green Bay Area Public School District partnered with the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary and the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay to offer a nature-based 4K program called the Oak (Outdoor Adventures for Kids) Learning Center that opened for the 2013-14 year and has received strong reviews, but Ward said it’s the only other such partnership she knows of in the state.
“It’s not that uncommon for public schools to have partnerships with existing 4K programs, especially in rural areas,” Ward said. “What is a little bit unique is the nature of the (Ridges) program, in that it is nature-based. Other than Green Bay, I’m not aware of any other that offers nature-based programming.”
Nature-based learning teaches more than just nature
Sheryl Honig, director of education at The Ridges, said the program is designed to get the youngsters outside to explore and play in The Ridges’ 1,600 acres while helping them develop an appreciation for the natural world and simultaneously developing life skills. The sanctuary has an indoor Discovery Room in its nature center, but it’s not the center of this program.
“It’s a nature approach, which means nature drives the curriculum,” Honig said. “Outside will be our classroom. We’re out in the forest 70% of the time.”
Honig said the curriculum, which is aligned with the National Association of the Education of Young Children and Wisconsin Models of Early Learning Standards, has students develop the same skills they’d develop in an indoor classroom. Yes, they learn about nature and the environment, but they also begin to develop skills in collaboration and social interaction, balance and strength, problem solving, observation and creativity, language (which she said is a great need for a typical 4K student), math, art and other scholastic areas.
“When you’re out in the forest, there’s a lot of things to count and sort and describe their attributes and give cause and effect,” she said. “And it’s all those things on steroids, because it’s real. Outside, we’ll be able to do read-alouds, have lots of talk about our topic. … We play outside, we hike outside, we have circle time outside, we eat snacks outside, we do art outside.
“We have established ourselves as a very strong, high-quality approach to early childhood learning.”
The Dragonfly program will use the same assessment process for children’s development goals as a more usual 4K program and the same opportunities for families to get involved and see how their children are progressing, like workshops and parent conferences, Honig said.
Partnership between The Ridges, school district
Ward said Ridges executive director Katie Krouse came to the school district and asked about forming a partnership. She said one of the main hurdles was working out some of the logistics, such as providing transportation for students.
While the Dragonfly school is a collaboration between the school district and The Ridges, Ward said it follows the program written by Honig.
“Technically, it is a Gibraltar program, but The Ridges has a wealth of resources in what they offer and what they teach,” Ward said. “They have some autonomy over what they teach, we have some oversight.”
Asked why Gibraltar was interested in the partnership, Ward cited the opportunity to offer an alternative to parents and their children that involves the natural elements for which Door County is so well known.
“Part of it is, we live in one of the most incredible places in the world – the beauty, the ecological diversity of it,” she said. “It’s having the ability and opportunity to create programming for parents that seek a more natural way for their children to learn. We can create programming for parents who are not serviced by what we’re offering in our 4K program.”
Positive reaction, but students needed
Ward and Honig said the parents from who they’ve heard since the partnership was announced have been excited about the Dragonfly program.
“So far, the reaction’s been overwhelmingly positive,” Ward said. “We’ve had a number of calls from parents asking if they can enroll their children.”
“Parents in these programs are very excited at the opportunity,” Honig said. “For some parents in Northern Door, this is the opportunity they’ve been seeking.”
But 10 students need to sign up to make the Dragonfly program a reality, which Ward said might not sound like much but can be in a less-populated school district like Gibraltar, which currently serves a total of 536 students in grades 4K through 12.
Learn more at the meeting
Ward said it’s very important for parents interested in the Dragonfly school for their 4-year-olds, as well as Gibraltar’s other 4K programs, to attend the Jan. 25 meeting. It takes place at 5 p.m. at the Northern Door Children’s Center, 10520 Judith Blazer Drive, Sister Bay. Representatives from all 4K sites will be there to present program information, answer questions, and provide enrollment information.
Any child who will be 4 years old by Sept. 1 and lives in the Gibraltar Area School District is eligible to enroll, although a limited number of spots will be available via open enrollment for interested families who live outside the district. 4K enrollment will begin Feb. 1.
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