Some parents aren't wild about 5th-graders camping out at park

October 16, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

The Harford Glen Environmental Education Center near Bel Air is the school system's crown jewel in outdoor learning.

Nature trails, ponds and birds abound in the 350-acre park, owned by the Board of Education, on South Wheel Road.

The pastoral oasis, amid the county sprawl, also is the site of a weeklong, residential program for the county's fifth-grade students, providing them with a camp-like learning experience.

But not all parents want their children to spend the night at the center.

"I was told it was to build independence. I don't see that as the school's job," Rick Schenning of Norrisville told the school board at a meeting last week.

He was one of several parents who voiced concerns about the program, which is offered on a rotational basis to fifth-grade students.

The center is able to accommodate 32 percent of the county's 2,500 fifth-graders during a 12-week period. The children learn to identify birds and trees, test stream water, take nature hikes, hold discussions around a campfire, and more.

"It is more than content and knowledge," explained Dennis Kirkwood, the schools' assistant supervisor of science and environmental education. "It provides a group living experience. The students share common tasks, interact with peers from other schools and make friends with high school counselors."

The fifth-grade classes not scheduled for the residential program have two days of field trips to Harford Glen. "It's the best alternative we can offer now," Mr. Kirkwood said.

The parents objecting to Harford Glen's residential program would like their children to be able to visit the center during daytime hours.

Elaine Lawton of Baldwin, the parent of a 10-year-old, asked the board to consider a pilot program that would allow commuters to attend the residential program.

"Some children are excluded because of the residential status," she said. "If there are viable solutions, where does the problem lie?"

Children who do not attend the residential program with their class are shifted to another teacher's classroom at their school. "It's a mild form of punishment," Mr. Schenning said. "I don't think it's fair."

The parents have other worries, too. "I have had experience in the school system over the past six years," Cindy Sharretts of Jarrettsville said. "You cannot control all their [the children's] behavior."

Shirley Doud of Jarrettsville also wondered about supervision. "Who knows who else is there?" she said about the nighttime staff.

Mr. Kirkwood assured parents that there is a registered nurse on duty, a security guard and trained staff 24 hours a day.

Mrs. Doud also questioned forbidding the children to call home. So did Mr. Schenning. "Parental contact is not allowed. I don't understand that," he said.

Mr. Kirkwood said 75 students calling home each day probably would tie up the phone for about six hours. "If we let one do it, we have to let everyone do it," he said.

The school board was perplexed by the issue. The members made various motions, from tabling the resolution, to approving it, to moving to postpone a decision.

Finally, the motion to continue the program was passed, 5-2, with the board promising to consider the parents' concerns.

"It is one program in the school system, where the community has come together," board President Ronald R. Eaton said. "It has raised questions about [establishing] an advisory board for outdoor education that would be a sounding board, filtering mechanism and sanity check."

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