DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR
SPICEWOOD — On a recent field trip to the Zachary Scott Theatre in Austin, the Spicewood Elementary School first- and second-graders stopped at Zilker Park for lunch. While the kids were sitting there, one boy looked up, saw the Austin skyline and remarked, “Are we in New York City?”
The teacher told the child that, no, they were in Austin. Upon hearing that, a girl sitting nearby said, “Austin, I’ve never been to Austin before.”
“That’s exactly why we’re so excited to have this as ‘A Year of Experiences,'” said Spicewood Elementary School Principal Leslie Baty. “We’re, what, 30 miles from Austin, and we have kids who may not have ever been there.”
In fact, there are a number of students who probably haven’t experienced much outside their immediate community. One number that paints the picture behind that fact gives Baty a bit of a shock. And it wasn’t just the number, but everything that went with it.
“That number is kind of eye-opening because it means there are a lot of students at this campus who haven’t even been to a nice, sit-down restaurant or a museum in Austin,” Baty said.
The number Baty was referring to was the percentage of students on the Spicewood campus classified as low socio-economic. The recent number put 54 percent of the students in that classification, up from 44 percent just three years ago.
While schools strive to educate students as prescribed by state leaders, the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards, there are a lot of lessons kids learn outside the class. Unfortunately, those lessons might not be as readily available for kids whose families don’t have the financial resources to support such endeavors, even if it’s walking through a children’s museum, or any museum, in Austin or the surrounding area.
This year, the Spicewood Elementary School’s Parent Teachers Organization decided to do something about it. The group, with the support of the staff and parents, came up with “A Year of Experiences.”
“What we basically told the teachers is to take as many field trips as you want or bring in as many speakers as you want to give your kids as many experiences as possible,” said Tracy Knight of the Spicewood Elementary PTO. “We told them to do whatever you want, whether it’s educational or something like going to a restaurant for a nice sit-down meal. Because you’d be surprised at the number of kids from this campus who may have never had the chance to go to a restaurant where they sit down and order from a menu.
“We just said, ‘Go get your kids some experiences,'” Knight said.
While field trips were a staple of the school experiences in years past, budget constraints have virtually wiped out the tradition. Baty said due to less school funding, students get one field trip a year.
“Field trips can introduce kids to so much more,” the principal said. “It gives them a chance to experience something they just can’t in class. Or, they can see something they’ve been studying in class actually in the world. Field trips can really reinforce what they learn in class.”
But sometimes it’s not just going somewhere. Knight said the PTO also encourages the staff to bring in guest speakers and presentations as well.
Earlier this school year, the students enjoyed Earth dome and sky dome presentations. Basically, Baty explained, an organization brought in these large displays of the Earth and space for students to get a “hands-on” lesson.
Several classes will attend a science-based play at the Zachary Scott Theatre in Austin this year, while others will take trips to the Pioneer Farm in Austin. Baty said the school hopes to host a fitness expert this spring and other special events.
“It’s just about getting the kids as many experiences as we can,” Baty said.
Knight said the PTO will continue to fund trips and guest speakers as long as the money remains. In December, those funds got a big bump during the PTO’s dinner/fundraiser.
“In that one night, that one event, we raised more than $9,000,” Knight said. “It was amazing. How often do you hear about a PTO raising that much money on one night — especially in a school this size?”
Knight said the silent auction did feature some rather unique items, including signed sports memorabilia by Jordan and Jaxon Shipley (Jordan played for the Texas Longhorns football team while Jaxon still does) and three items signed by country music legend George Strait. It wasn’t just big-ticket items either; there were plenty of things for more budget-minded bidders.
Several staff members even got into the act by offering special time with teachers for students, including art lessons with a teacher, extra instructions or something as simple as meeting the student for lunch or a movie.
“It was just a little special time with a teacher,” Knight said.
Employees of the Best Buy in Bee Cave even volunteered to work the event so PTO members and teachers didn’t have to. The store even donated an Xbox 360 and an iPad Mini for the program.
The event, however, wouldn’t have been as successful if attended just by staff members and parents. One of the things Knight and Baty noted was the way the entire community supports the campus by not just attending the event but also donating items.
“We are truly a community school,” Baty said. “We have people who don’t have kids or grandkids going to our school, but they feel like this is their school. And they support us.”
In the end, Knight and Baty agreed it all pays dividends for the students. Sometimes, it’s something as simple a child seeing the Austin skyline for the first time to drive home the importance of having new experiences.