By ALISHA GEORGE
The Carroll County Times
WESTMINSTER, Md. (AP) — Steve Heacock has been with Carroll County Outdoor School at Hashawha Environmental Center since it first opened 36 years ago. He has taught more than 110,000 Carroll County students and is often recognized by the parents of incoming students who attended the school when they were sixth-graders.
Many of those parents have the expectation that their children will be entitled to the same experience they had.
“The Outdoor School culturally is part of Carroll County,” said Heacock, school principal.
But Outdoor School is being considered by Carroll County Public Schools as a possible budget cut if the school system needs to reduce its budget by almost $9 million. That budget scenario would likely occur if the school system is funded by the county at Maintenance of Effort, a state law that mandates counties at least fund school systems at the same per-pupil amount for the upcoming year as they did the prior year.
Eliminating Outdoor School would be a savings of $950,000, according to a budget work session presentation in December.
Every sixth-grader in Carroll County has the opportunity to attend Outdoor School, which is Carroll County’s residential environmental school. About 99 percent of them attend for one week, with programs running about 33 weeks each year, Heacock said.
The mission of Outdoor School is to empower students to act upon their environmental knowledge and skills. Students learn about different aspects of the environment and then have the opportunity to put their knowledge into action by participating in a service project such as tree planting to improve the riparian buffers or maintaining habitat plantings.
Upon successfully completing Outdoor School, students receive 10 service-learning hours toward their 75-hour graduation requirement. Students can earn 10 additional service-learning hours after going to Outdoor School, Heacock said. Students just need to complete a project on their own time and submit a service-learning form by Oct. 31 of their seventh-grade year.
Heacock said that the school being mentioned as a possible cut doesn’t make him feel like he has any less support from the Board of Education, the superintendent or the community. He knows it’s just because of funding constraints, he said.
But it’s not any less hard to hear it being mentioned for elimination.
“While I don’t think that’s going to occur, it wears on you,” he said.
The school is more than just a camp-like setting. It’s a science and environmental program that is part of the middle school program of studies.
Students at Outdoor School experience environmental issue investigation. They identify issues, ask questions, collect data, draw conclusions about the data and take action. On Thursday, many of the teachers and students got their hands dirty taking action on an issue they had identified.
For the week they attend, students are separated into groups of about 20 and a couple of those groups decided to take shovels and clippers to invasive plants on Thursday.
Chad Vasquenza and Grayson Eller, sixth-graders at Mount Airy Middle School, used shovels to remove pokeweed, which is a perennial herb that is native to eastern North America and cultivated throughout the world.
Though pokeweed is a native plant, it is invasive and takes over large areas, Chad said.
Grayson said it’s important to take out invasive and non-native plants because it benefits the environment.
“It affects the whole food web,” he said.
Another group of students went to the wetlands classroom to see a demonstration about how development affects water runoff. Using a model so they could see the process first-hand, students saw that when a forest is are replaced with houses, landfills, schools and farms, a nearby stream gets polluted.
Matthew Geiger, sixth-grader at Mount Airy Middle, said Outdoor School has been a really fun experience. He loved spending the week out in nature.
“You learn so many things you never could have imagined,” he said.
The sixth-grade teachers from the children’s home school also attend Outdoor School when their students go. The experience is a way to get to know their students in a different environment.
“Sometimes we see leaders emerge who do not open up in the classroom,” Linda Blizzard said, sixth-grade social studies teacher at Mount Airy Middle.
Outdoor School also recruits local high school students to be counselors. Liz Woodruff, from Manchester Valley High School, said she loved getting to know all the girls in her group and learning more environmental knowledge. She attended Outdoor School when she was in sixth grade.
One of her group members, Mount Airy Middle School sixth-grader Leann Gomez, said she loved participating in a confidence course and the night hikes.
“It’s really fun because you never know what you’ll see,” she said.
How it’s evolved
Outdoor School has changed over the years in its teaching methodology and goals to align with content standards and the Maryland State Department of Education environmental literacy graduation requirement, Heacock said.
Over the years, the school has added programs for students at Crossroads Middle School, Gateway School and in other alternative school programs. It has also started programs for elementary students.
It recently added a pre- and post-assessment piece to the week-long school experience so they can utilize student feedback.
Outdoor School has a staff of 12 people, including three nurses so a nurse is available at all times; five teachers; three instructional assistants and one live material specialist.
Having the three nurses on staff better allows the school to accommodate medically fragile students and those with severe allergies so they can have the same experience as their peers, he said. To do this, the staff works with teachers and administrators at county schools to understand students’ behavioral and medical needs, Heacock said.
“I thought it was important that we open the doors as wide as we can,” he said.
Heacock said he rarely gets negative feedback about Outdoor School. The school is not hoping to just build environmental knowledge in students, but also create citizens willing to step out and implement actions within their own belief and value system.
The school is a mixture of serious learning and fun experiences, Heacock said. When the weather is nice, kids are even permitted to roll around in the mud. He always makes sure to keep in mind something one of his instructors told him, which was to never forget that he is building lifelong memories and experiences for children.
“These experiences may impact these kids throughout their lives,” he said.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)