When people arrive on the campus of Sunlake Academy of Math & Science, in Lutz, they are greeted by a place that sets a positive tone.
“Welcome back Ravens, we missed you,” proclaims a sign near the school’s driveway.
“We support our students. We support teachers. We support our administration. We love our school,” a sign on a fence declares.
“Go Ravens!” a third sign encourages.
Sounds of children — playing outdoors— fill the air.
And, near the front door of the public charter school, there’s a reminder of today’s COVID-19 times. A sign reminds those entering that they must wear a face mask and maintain social distancing.
Inside, there are other clues regarding the ongoing pandemic.
There’s hand sanitizer on the counter, plexiglass separating office staff from visitors, and social distancing signs.
Children seem to be taking it all in stride as they walk down a corridor in single file, dressed in school uniforms and wearing their masks of various designs.
They wave to Principal Judy Moore, as they make their way to Spanish class.
Finding the balance between safety and normalcy has presented new challenges, but Moore said that adapting to change is part of an educator’s way of life.
As it relates to COVID-19, she said, “I think, like everybody else, you just take it as it comes, do the best job that you can.
“The challenge with COVID, all of the way back to March when it started — the information changes every 10 minutes. Whatever the standard is right now, is probably not going to be the standard tomorrow, or the day after,” she said.
That’s been a frustration for everyone, but the school has proceeded — giving parents an option for their children to learn at home or at school.
The children are assigned to a specific class, wherever they’re learning.
“If they happen to be at home, they’re basically on the screen and the teacher is interacting with the kids that are at home and the kids in the class, at the same time,” the principal said.
Teachers sometimes will group kids, so one teacher is working with the kids at school, while others instruct the online kids. And, then they will swap.
Some teachers feel they are better able to serve both groups that way, Moore said. But, other teachers are teaching both groups, simultaneously.
Moore knows that’s difficult to do, and she’s impressed.
Adapting to COVID-19 has required changes, but the school also is getting ready to embark on another big change — this one, of its own making.
Parents have raised $30,000 to pay for a new STEAM lab.
Initially, the hope was to open it at the beginning of this school year, but that was thrown off by COVID-19. Now, plans call for opening it within the next couple of months.
A space initially that was designed for a media center is being converted into the STEAM lab. (The acronym stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.)
A group, which Moore calls the STEAM Team, led the planning efforts. Moore joined that team, the executive area director from Charter School Associates and one of CSA’s math coaches during visits to STEAM labs at Corbett Prep, Jesuit High School and Academy of the Holy Names to glean ideas.
The lab will be equipped with Virtual Reality headsets, which individual classrooms can check out. It will have 3D printers, a 3D laser printer, tablets, and other devices and programs aimed at unleashing new ways of learning.
Children in kindergarten through fifth grade will visit once a week, and the technology will be incorporated into middle school classes.
The idea is to harness the power of technology to broaden learning experiences.
“You kind of have to change up the way you think, and the way you teach,” said Moore, who did her doctoral work in technology integration.
“It’s about higher order thinking skills. It’s about problem-solving. It’s about teamwork, creative thinking and creative problem-solving,” said Moore, who worked in the Gaston County school district in Charlotte, North Carolina, for 21 years before arriving last year at Sunlake Academy.
Educators must connect how they teach with how students learn, the principal added.
“For me, it became not so much about technology, not so much about how we teach, but it’s about how kids learn — and how they’re wired these days,” the principal added.
Today’s students are part of the digital native generation. They live in a world of Google, digital on-demand, virtual reality and other technical advances, Moore said.
Education must go deeper
“How do you make the students think through the problems versus the teacher just giving the question and the answer?” Moore said.
Students are challenged to consider: “How do you use your creativity to come to more than one solution, to the same problem?
“The truth of the matter is the jobs that we’re trying to prepare them for, don’t exist. And, they’re not going to exist anytime soon,” Moore said.
The principal and her husband moved to the area because he was offered a new job opportunity, and she set out seeking the right match for her interests and skills.
Moore said she was attracted to Sunlake Academy because she’s been interested for years in differentiated instruction and higher-order thinking skills.
“We’re (Sunlake Academy) very data-driven. Our teachers are constantly checking in on where kids are in terms of their proficiency and growth, on different curriculum strands and skill sets.
“We have differentiated groups,” she said, adding there are multi-tiered systems of support for students who need extra help.
“I had a lot of opportunity to go where I wanted,” Moore said. “I chose to come here because they’re speaking my vision.”
The promise of stability was attractive, too.
In her previous district, the management style involved transferring principals around a lot.
“I really want to be in a place where I can make some change and be long-term,” Moore said.
Students attending the school, at 18681 N. Dale Mabry Highway, come from Hillsborough and Pasco counties. It draws primarily from the communities of Lutz, Land O’ Lakes, Tampa, Carrollwood, Cheval, Wesley Chapel and Odessa. It has some openings, so parents interested in learning more should contact the school.
Other details that may be of interest to parents of potential students:
- Before and after school care is available, with doors opening at 6:30 a.m., and closing at 6:30 p.m. Full-time or part-time child care is available to suit parents’ needs.
- The school’s car line begins at 7:20 a.m., with classes beginning at 8 a.m.
- Dismissal times are staggered, with the school day ending for kindergarten through second grade at 2:30 p.m.; and, for grades three through eight at 3 p.m.
For additional information about Sunlake Academy, visit SunlakeAcademy.org.
Published October 14, 2020