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Furry friends and guest stars from Jay to Navarre will bring distance learning to life for the remainder of the school year in Santa Rosa County as the school district rolls out a new, tailored distance learning program for elementary students aimed at bringing cohesiveness to the online curriculum.

"One District, One Book" is a new program created by staff and administrators throughout the county that focuses on one specific curriculum centered around one book. The book, "A Boy Called Bat" by Elana K. Arnold, is about a young boy on the autism spectrum who likes to eat spaghetti and learn about animals.

The book will be distributed at no cost to each of the county's 14,211 students in kindergarten through fifth grade by Monday, and will guide students for the rest of the school year via a series of interactive assignments at each grade level — including instructional videos featuring local pets and wildlife.

"The departments created work assignments for ELA (English Language Arts), science and math for each and every grade level, at least two assignments per week," said April Martin, director of elementary education for the Santa Rosa County School District. "And when I say assignments, I'm not talking worksheets, I'm talking activities that might be a cooking activity or STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) activity for science, that tie back to the story."

"One District, One Book" is how Santa Rosa County is trying to make distance learning easier for students, teachers and parents who are having to adjust quickly to the new norm of online learning, which has been in place since March 30 and will continue through the rest of the school year. The last day of instruction in Santa Rosa County is Friday, May 29.

The new program is geared toward students in kindergarten through fifth grades, who typically need more guidance from their parents when it comes to learning at home. Middle and high school students are continuing to work with their teachers via Microsoft Teams.

Elementary students will have a packet of work to move through as they continue with their lessons. The packets will be the same for each grade level, each teacher and each school. The consistency will help parents who have struggled with differing amounts of schoolwork between students.

"Some parents would say, 'Oh, my child doesn't have enough work,' and some said, 'My child has too much, we can't handle all of it,'" Martin said. "We had concerns about the different levels of ability of parents to work with their child, and we're looking at parents having to work from home themselves and being limited on working with their child."

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Animal guests, noodle cooking and technology learning

To help bring concepts of the book to life for elementary students, Dr. Karen Barber, the director of federal programs for the school district, will be traveling throughout the county for the next several weeks to shoot videos of guest stars and their furry (or slimy) friends reading certain chapters of the book.

On Friday, she visited the Santa Rosa County Sheriff's Office and had Deputy Clay Smith and his K-9 Dozer read a chapter of the book. Next week, she will go to the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge to have animal technician Michelle Pettis read a chapter with the refuge's resident star skunk, Riley, which ties into the story because Bat, the main character in the book, also has a pet skunk.

She will also read with dolphins on a dolphin cruise, with turtles at the Navarre Beach Marine Science Station and with a teacher who reads to cows on her farm on a regular basis.

"We really want to tie the book to the community and real life. We want to tie it to careers. And we also want to provide moms and dads, families and children, with that example of what reading a book out loud should look like," Barber said. "So that when families are reading at home, they see the kind of expression that the adult who's reading the book is putting into the book. But it's also a shared experience for the family at home, the family with their children, and it's a shared experience while they learn about a location in our community."

Barber also hopes that learning about different places in the community will encourage families to get out and visit once stay-at-home orders are lifted, helping to boost the local economy.

In addition to the videos with animals, the curriculum will focus on hands-on learning and experiments to help children at home follow along with the book. Jeff Baugus, the district's coordinator of math and science, said each learning department created two assignments per week, for a total of eight assignments, that follow along with the storytelling in the book.

"The book really focuses on the mother's occupation as a veterinarian, so there's a lot of animal-based content," Baugus said. "Part of it talks about cooking with his mom and having spaghetti, so it gives us a chance to talk about temperature changes and what it takes to get noodles ready for spaghetti. And so as students read that book, we want these extension activities to be familiar with the context they've read, yet still address the state standards required in each of those courses."

Mike Thorpe, the district's director of professional learning, is bringing in Microsoft experts next week to help teachers, parents and students get a better grasp on technology and how to make better use of online learning. He's also rolling out ways to translate the curriculum for students whose first language is not English.

"You will start seeing a presence of us doing activities at night again, for parents and students to plug in to better understand the Microsoft Teams platform," Thorpe said. "All of this is to help help not only teachers, but everyone that's involved in this distant learning be more comfortable with what's going on."

What the future holds for distance learning

Though the new curriculum will end May 29, the last day of school, Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick said he doesn't see how the district can continue next school year without incorporating the lessons and techniques they've developed during distance learning.

"I think both distance learning and these types of school district projects just have a richness to them," Wyrosdick said. "They have a togetherness to them. And I think we're going to explore how we can do more of this in the future, whether we're in school or not."

Rebekah Martin, a first-year kindergarten teacher at S.S. Dixon Primary School, said she's taken away several lessons from online learning that she plans to incorporate into her curriculum next year.

Martin has several special needs students who she's been able to give more tailored instruction to since distance learning began, and she plans to continue some of her instructional techniques next year.

"It's made me do a lot of reflection to determine what is most important when it comes to wanting to have my students ready for the first grade," she said. "The differentiation (tailored instruction) has really made a difference, but also just learning how to engage with them. ... It was hard to get into the routine of figuring out what is best for my kids, but I think I have figured out my schedule and I've had really awesome parent interaction and engagement. It's just been great seeing us go from a regular classroom to this online platform."

Annie Blanks can be reached at ablanks@pnj.com or 850-435-8632.