Thousands of Akron schoolchildren in kindergarten through fifth grade will be going on smarter field trips.

The GAR Foundation has given $1.2 million to Akron Public Schools to tie grade-specific field trips with classroom curriculum, with all elementary school children — an estimated 8,800 — eventually participating annually.

The program, called Essential Experiences, was announced Thursday during Superintendent David James’ annual State of the Schools address. James touched on numerous subjects during his talk at Tangier restaurant, including the expansion of high school College and Career Academies and the creation of the I Promise School in collaboration with the LeBron James Family Foundation. The luncheon speech was sponsored by the Akron Press Club.

The GAR Foundation’s grant to fund Essential Experiences is among numerous innovations taking place in the school system, James said.

“These simply won’t be field trips. They’ll be like field trips on steroids,” James said.

Under Essential Experiences, Akron kindergartners will be involved in an arts and music program with ArtSparks; first-graders will travel to the Akron Zoo and have visits by the Akron ZooMobile; second-graders will go to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History; third-graders will visit Hale Farm & Village; fourth-graders will go to the Akron Art Museum; and fifth-graders will visit Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens. The program starts this spring, followed by full implementation in the fall.

Two senior members of the Akron-based GAR Foundation briefly addressed the audience.

“GAR’s mission is to help Akron become smarter, stronger and more vibrant,” foundation President Christine Amer Mayer said. “For years we have supported out-of-school plans and enrichment activities.”

While some schools were able to provide valuable out-of-school experiences, others in the Akron school system were unable to participate through no fault of their own, Mayer said.

“So we set out to solve that problem,” she said.

Essential Experiences is designed to connect classroom learning with a field trip to a local cultural asset, Kirstin Toth, senior vice president at the GAR Foundation, told the audience.

“Now these are much more than your typical field trip,” she said. “Think of them more as a field study rather than a field trip.”

The trips and experiences will be designed with each teacher’s lesson plan in mind, Toth said.

James said the school district’s role is to prepare students for the future, not the world of the 1960s and ‘70s in which he grew up.

“As a public school district, we have to do things differently,” he said. “Our organization must remain focused on student success by becoming more flexible, more engaged with the community, and using our resources in an efficient manner.”

The district — starting in August — is ready to launch College and Career Academies in each of its high schools, meaning every student will be selecting one of 57 career pathways, James said. The academies in part involve partnering with major employers and organizations in the Akron community, including Akron Children's Hospital, University of Akron, Bridgestone Americas, Summa Health, Goodyear and others.

James said the district will be making an announcement next week on a significant College and Career Academy partnership.

“What I see today is a community-wide effort to improve the lives of students,” James said.

James referred to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visiting Oberlin College in 1965 and telling a story about the character Rip Van Winkle who woke up after 20 years to find George Washington had replaced the king of England. There is nothing more tragic than “sleeping through a revolution,” King noted in his speech, James said.

James told the audience that his challenge to them is “to help our young people prepare for the revolution that is actually taking place today.”

Kids need to understand that they need an education to be prepared for the world of tomorrow, James said. “Please, please don’t let them fall asleep, to wake up and find that the world has passed them by.”

Jim Mackinnon covers business and county government. He can be reached at 330-996-3544 or jmackinnon@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him @JimMackinnonABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/JimMackinnonABJ