Ortega Museum Magnet 11th in nation

Ortega Museum Magnet 11th in nation
Hannah Geiger with class Animal Lifecycle exhibit

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

Although not quite a “Night at the Museum”, walking the halls at Ortega Elementary School during one of the museum magnet’s three annual exhibitions is an inspiring experience. As each class exhibit is described by its docents, visitors can’t help but be amazed by the depth of knowledge and creativity on display.

“This is a scale-model display comparing all the planets to the sun,” said 3rd grade student Josiah Smith. “If you combine all the planets together, it’s still not as big as the sun.” Josiah, along with classmate Trystan Hall, served as docents for their class exhibit A Planet in Motion, constructed following a class visit to the planetarium at the Museum of Science and History.
Each class takes a learning expedition to a local museum, which serves as a resource for the class’s own museum-quality display. “Everything they do is expected to be of museum quality,” said Jill Cross, curriculum integration specialist at what is the country’s 11th museum magnet elementary school. “The students take great pride in their work and go out of their way to refrain from accidentally damaging someone else’s work.”

Ortega Elementary School is finishing the last year in a three-year cycle made possible by a $1.3 million grant awarded in 2010 specifically for a museum studies program. The school is currently waiting to hear if the program can be extended for another year.

In the meantime, the school is getting ready to celebrate its 90th anniversary in the Ortega community, where some former students still live and send their own children to the neighborhood school. “About one third of the 415 students in Kindergarten through 5th Grade are from the neighborhood,” said Cross. “The museum grant allowed us to diversify; without the magnet program, the school would be under capacity.”

That would be sad news for the more than 100 children on the waiting list and for students like 1st grader Hannah Geiger, who spoke eloquently about the help her class received from students at the University of North Florida’s Arts Integration program. “We got help from UNF students to help us make our clay animals,” as she proudly showed off her four-part gorilla tableau in the Animal Lifecycle display.

Each class takes a monthly learning expedition to a local museum, where they are often taken “behind the scenes” to see where older exhibits are archived or new ones are being staged for future display. Many of the class exhibits are a result of several museum influences, like the Marine Science display created by the 5th grade class.
Destinee Bouldin’s favorite museum is The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens. “Paintings of water and plants helped me make some of the plant life for our exhibit,” she said, while classmate Tyriq Doss is a big fan of the MOSH.

A trip to the Jacksonville Zoo and the reading of The Great Kapok Tree were the inspiration for the 2nd grade class Rain Forest exhibit, which sported several papier-mâché animals, including an ocelot and an anaconda. “The anaconda is as long as a school bus,” explained Lennox Cross. “It can eat a deer, a cheetah and a rabbit and lives in a swamp.”
Sophia Mauro took great delight in describing the smell which emanates from a Venus Fly Trap and why a Bird of Paradise plant got its name, while classmate Emma Kilpatrick walked visitors through an explanation of poisonous dart frogs and the live spider that made a web in a construction paper bromeliad.

Every part of each class museum display is done by the students, including the labeling of all the “specimens” which are variously created out of clay, papier-mâché, construction paper, plastic bottle, cotton, feathers and more, with some help from the UNF art students.

By the 4th grade, the students are ready to take out-of-town learning expeditions to places like the Kennedy Space Center, Colonial Williamsburg, the Museum of Arts & Sciences in Daytona Beach and, hopefully, The Smithsonian. The integrated museum-style learning approach provides a different way of looking at things, according to Cross. “They learn how many different jobs there are in museums, from public relations to museum maintenance.”

Plans for the upcoming 90th anniversary will include an auction of some of the students’ exhibits, while others are kept in display cases for the enjoyment of parents, visitors and future museum magnet students.

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