Blissfield’s BELL Academy Grows a Main Street Project


In Blissfield, Michigan, a dream is growing. It’s growing in the elementary school and it’s growing in the Main Street District. The Blissfield Environmental Life Lab (B.E.L.L.) is growing student achievement, environmental awareness and community pride.

It started with a teacher’s dream to create open-air courtyards where students could learn about science through hands-on investigation. Gary Koppelman envisioned three learning centers devoted to earth, physical and life sciences. In 1976, when he started his teaching career, that dream seemed impossible. But in the 1990s, the Blissfield Foundation for Educational Excellence challenged its teachers to share their dreams. What would you do, they asked, if money were no object? 

The B.E.L.L. Academy Was Born

Koppelman submitted his proposal and the community, led by the local Rotary club, enthusiastically supported it, raising $125,000 in grants and donations for a life sciences lab. Eighteen partners and numerous anonymous donors joined with the foundation and Blissfield’s PTO to create a visionary educational experience for local students.

As far as anyone knows, Blissfield’s life lab is unique for an elementary school. Other schools have greenhouses and life labs, but the B.E.L.L. contains ecosystems—desert, rainforest, saltwater and freshwater environments are demonstrated here. It is powered in part by green energy—wind and solar power.  In fall and spring, the lab shows about 85 percent efficiency, while efficiency drops to about 15 percent in winter. In summer, the solar and wind power supply close to 100 percent of the lab’s energy needs.

SOTW_3-12-12_Blissfield_KidsObserveThe lab is separated into biomes, such as the tropical rainforest biome, where students can see and touch exotic creatures like rose hair tarantulas, African black millipedes and Madagascar hissing cockroaches in the “Incredible Invertebrate Zoo.” Another biome has a pond and stream with fish from four continents. The lab also boasts an aviary, butterfly house, and herpetile area. Students are encouraged to use scientific investigative methods to observe creatures they might not otherwise encounter.

Teachers across the curriculum use the lab for student enrichment activities. Art and writing activities are routinely tied to activities in the lab. All grade levels participate in B.E.L.L. activities, but it is the 5th grade students, under Koppelman’s tutelage, who become the zookeepers for the lab. When school is not in session, parent volunteers help out in the lab.

Proven Results

At a cost that eventually grew to approximately $200,000 – including building, energy apparatus and facilities—the lab is not cheap. But compared to other educational expenditures, and given the fact that donated funds were used to build it, the B.E.L.L. is worth every penny. And test scores prove it. Koppelman says students score higher than average on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program. Before the advent of the lab, they routinely scored 3 points below average.

Though the B.E.L.L. came into existence later, former student Dr. Jodi  A. Sterle credits Koppelman’s vision with her pursuit of a career in science. Dr. Sterle says, “While I was in his class before the B.E.L.L. lab, he instilled in me a love and curiosity for learning beyond the classroom.  I firmly believe that experiential learning like hatching chicks in Mr. Koppelman's classroom ignited my interest in reproductive physiology—enough that I eventually earned a Ph.D. in it!  These experiences are further enhanced with B.E.L.L.—the possibilities are endless with a facility like that!”

Results of statewide testing show that this hands-on approach does make students more proficient in science. In 2010, 86.4 percent of Blissfield 5th graders met or exceeded expectations in science, compared with 78 percent statewide. Less than 1 percent of students did not meet expectations, compared with 5% statewide. Dr. Sterle credits Mr. Koppelman and teachers like him for the gains. “The real ‘success story’ about all of this,” says Dr. Sterle, “is Mr. Koppelman.  Most people are not blessed enough to come across a teacher like Mr. Koppelman in their lifetime.  He is not only the brains behind B.E.L.L., but is its heart and soul.”  

Main Street Builds a School Partnership

The B.E.L.L. supports education through hands-on activities. This emphasis on practical, real-world learning has benefited the local community and expanded the lab’s reach into Blissfield’s Main Street District. Several citizens saw an opportunity to use the skills being developed at the school to enhance the downtown. The partnership that grew between the elementary school and the downtown was, in Koppelman’s words, “only natural.” A few citizens approached the school in 2000 to organize the initial planting in wooden barrows in the downtown.

SOTW_3-12-12_Blissfield_KidsPlantingIt has become a rite of spring for 5th graders, who plant flowering annuals that are destined to line the streets of downtown Blissfield.  The Downtown Development Authority (now Main Street) orders the variety and color of flowers it wants downtown and the students grow and plant them. While Koppelman would like to see more native species used in the planters—he says that besides a natural adaptation to the local environment, native flowering plants have the added advantage of a Blissfield purple-and-gold palette—he is content to work with Main Street volunteers to develop planters that enhance the downtown.  Once they have completed the project, students are asked to write a responsive essay. 

This is especially exciting because, like many Main Street Districts, Blissfield needs to attract younger people as stakeholders in its downtown. Throughout the growing season, the children who create the flower displays come downtown with their families to proudly show off the plants that they grew in the urns they planted. Koppelman notes that it’s not unusual to see students watering their own plants and slipping extra fertilizer into their pots. It gives these youngsters ownership in their downtown that might be difficult to create in any other way.

More than Flowers

The B.E.L.L. academy is so much more than flowers, though. The B.E.L.L. in its current state focuses on life sciences; Koppelman dreams of a day when adjunct labs might also include physical and earth sciences as well, but he isn’t sure these dreams will come to fruition before he retires. Still, he acknowledges that anything is possible. He says, “The community has released me to follow my passions,” and enabled him to create a learning center that makes a difference in children’s lives, and in their community.

SOTW_3-12-12_BlissfieldBELL-LabThe next step is raising funds for a perennial walkway and canopy project. This will enclose an existing walkway between the school and the lab and create a perennial garden to attract birds and butterflies so that students can observe them in their natural habitat.

“Any community is lucky to have amazing teachers like Gary Koppelman,” says Dr. Sterle. “They are touching children's lives, and their futures, every day.”  Koppelman is modest about his achievements. He says, “Every teacher has a dream to reach the students within their classroom.” But because of budget and other considerations, few can achieve those dreams. At Blissfield, Koppelman and other teachers have been given the support they need to challenge students with real-world learning opportunities through the B.E.L.L. And because of a teacher’s dream, students are learning and growing in ways that benefit not just their individual educations, but their community, as well.

For more information about the B.E.L.L., please visit the Blissfield Environmental Life Lab website. To learn more about Blissfield's Main Street program, visit the Blissfield Main Street website.