First they had some classroom time learning about the ecosystem of a river, then they spent some time on site! Lake Springfield made a wonderful lab for these students and they learned some amazing things.

Ecosystem of a RiverThey learned about water safety and how to paddle a canoe, a kayak and a paddle board — because that’s how scientists have to sometimes travel to study animals or nature.

The nearly 50 students enrolled in the Wonders of the Ozarks Learning Facility, or WOLF program, often learn outdoors — in active and hands-on ways — as they explore topics related to nature conservation.

The popular program is part of Springfield Public Schools’ choice and innovative academic programs, which were cited as a blue ribbon in the 2013 Community Focus report released Wednesday.

“Individualized learning is essential to ensure students are prepared to succeed in a global society,” said Superintendent Norm Ridder, in the report. “Focusing on the individual student embeds the student’s needs in every decision.”

Growth in the number of choice programs slowed in recent years, when budgets were tight, but several options currently in development are planned for the 2014-15 school year.

Associate Superintendent Ben Hackenwerth said offering more choice has contributed to steady enrollment growth in recent years, bucking the decline seen in many urban systems.

Springfield also received a blue ribbon for an increased graduation rate — up from 78.9 percent to 85.9 percent in the past seven years — and a dropout rate that has dwindled to 2.3 percent.

In 2007, the dropout rate was listed as a top concern.

Associate Superintendent Justin Herrell said the district’s Persistence to Graduation effort, which now starts in preschool and goes through graduation, was just getting underway. It is a year-round effort now.

“The fundamental thing that has made a difference is the deliberate and consistent focus,” he said. “Yes, the final four years in high school is where all the (graduation and dropout) numbers show up, but it starts in kindergarten.”

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Ecosystem of a River