Her challenge to her students was to learn about the vacation opportunities right here at the Lake of the Ozarks. The class included field trips, online research, the use of iPads for photography and videography and problem solving.

Taking a vacation at home.

That's an unusual concept, but when gas prices skyrocketed several years ago and the Great Recession impacted our pocketbooks, we all looked for alternative ways to spend time with our families and not have the expense of an extended road trip.

Then along came the Staycation, a way to enjoy what our own backyards has to offer at a minimal cost.

A School of the Osage group of Middle School students learned all about Staycations recently as part of the school's revitalized SOTO Innovate (summer school) program. Misti Maples, Middle School social studies teacher, handled students in grades 6-8 for the three-week program that recently ended.

Her challenge to her students was to learn about the vacation opportunities right here at the Lake of the Ozarks. The class included field trips, online research, the use of iPads for photography and videography and problem solving.

Maples' project is one of many that evolved from a reinvigorated summer school program that staff and faculty developed during the 2016-17 school year. The intent was to pump new life into a program that had waned in recent years.

Elementary, middle school and high school assistant principals introduced the new concept -- named SOTO Innovate -- to the board of education last winter. The revitalized mission was to provide an engaging summer school experience that meets the needs of the students through enrichment and remediation, SOTO families, faculty and staff. The program leveraged the school's technology investment to help students create, connect and collaborate within the schools and the community.

Students and teachers had lost interest in the program in recent years to the point that teachers from other districts had been recruited. While the high school typically has a full complement of students because of credit recovery and graduation needs, the middle school, upper and lower elementary schools have been challenged to attract students and teachers.

From Maples' perspective, the revitalized program was a success. Her class was full, the students were engaged and teachers involved in the other SOTO Innovate programs were enthusiastic about the new process.

"My hope was for them to learn more about their community, and that there's so much do here," Maples explained. "In the end, they did learn about their community, they had fun, they were able to develop and use their skills on their digital devices and even their production skills and took part in team building exercises in developing a commercial about the area."

Students also saw first hand how the community is so supportive of the School of the Osage and its programs. Maples said she was the community's involvement and she "felt blessed to showcase the community at little or no cost."

Field trips were taken to Ha Ha Tonka State Park where students photographed and videographed many areas; to Willmore Lodge to learn about the history of Bagnell Dam and Willmore Lodge; below Bagnell Dam for a closeup of the turbine action; and a cruise on the Celebration, which was subsidized by the Bagnell Dam Strip Association. Bill Moulder, a local historian, accompanied the group on the Celebration to provide students and others more history about the lake.

Maples had special thanks to Linda Wilson of Old Time Photos for coordinating with the Bagnell Dam Strip Association; to guest speaker Tim Jacobson of the Convention and Visitor Bureau for discussing tourism; to photographer Amy Kostuke of Hayden Grace Studios for offering her photography and videography expertise; to Eric and Peter Martin for their technical expertise in helping students create a commercial; to Gretchen Milam, School of the Osage bus driver for transporting the students around the community; and to the School of the Osage for allowing for the field trips and for providing supplies for the class.

"It was truly a great experience," Maples said.

SOTO Innovate attracted 442 students district wide, up 85 students from the previous year. 

"We have received positive feedback from teachers, parents and students about the changes that we made this year," Dr. Lori Salee, director of student services, said.  "Mrs. Maples class is a great example of the many exciting and engaging classes that took place during SOTO Innovate. We are still gathering information and having discussions about what we can do to make it even better next summer."