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Keys charter school gets $500,000 grant after pandemic hits mental health, STEM classes

Sigsbee Charter School file photo
Sigsbee Charter School students enjoy memorable field trips in the Florida Keys, like this trip to the Dry Tortugas National Park.

At one of the Keys' most sought-after schools, like at many others, the pandemic led to a drastic increase in mental health referrals for students.

But it also was followed by a marked decline in students choosing STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — classes.

Teachers at Sigsbee Charter School believe the issues are linked — and now they will have access to a half-million dollar grant to tackle the problem.

Although the K-8 school is located on a Navy base in Key West, it is open to both military and civilian families. But it does mean it can receive grants such as this one, from the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity.

The school sought the grant at a time when students across the U.S. were struggling with transitioning to online learning.

Principal Eli Jannes explained that for children of military families, who often have transient lives, the situation exacerbated the challenge of making connections at new schools.

“Some of them moved into the Keys and never even got to step on campus before they started at our school,” Jannes said. “We saw a pretty dramatic decline in general mental well-being.”

During a stressful time, Sigsbee said students also seemed intimidated by choosing science and math classes. Fewer kids at Sigsbee have been taking STEM electives since the pandemic began in 2020

But things are getting better, Jannes said. STEM studies can help kids feel more connected to school and their community.

"Our science teachers and these environmental agencies can show them [that] what you’re learning can contribute to changing the world and making the environment a better place," Jannes said.

The grant will be spent over five years for new lesson plans in STEM classes for children in grades three through eight.

“Part of the strategies are intended to help our counselors also work with the students to learn some healthier strategies about perserverance, resilience, mental health,” Jannes added. “General well-being in health.”

Jannes said STEM courses encourage kids to head toward careers in science and math-related industries.

Sigsbee Charter School was founded in 2010, and now has about 550 students. Among some of the memorable field trips accessible to children at the school are visits to local environmental research centers and trips to the Dry Tortugas National Park.

Gwen Filosa covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. She has been reporting from the island chain for over a decade, from Cuban landings and the workforce housing crisis, to the oddities and charms of the Keys.
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