Imagine a sixth-grader going to school Monday and not returning home until Friday. And loving every minute of it.
"I don't want to leave," said Monica Black, 11, at the end of her week at the Carroll County Outdoor School. The school is a camp in which sixth-graders in Carroll County schools learn about the environment while developing responsibility for themselves and having a lot of fun.
"They should make it two weeks because there's not enough time," said Jaime Hunt, Monica's classmate in Team 3 at Westminster West Middle School.
They fished for crawfish, minnows and tadpoles, and then returned them to their wet homes. They built shelters out of whatever they could find in the forest. They walked into the woods after dark to call barred owls and screech owls, who often thrilled the youngsters with an answer.
Since the Board of Education founded the Outdoor School in 1964, the program has been one of the hallmarks of the sixth grade. For the first several years, the schools leased River Valley Ranch near Manchester, until the county bought and built Hashawha Environmental Appreciation Center on John Owings Road.
The seven public middle schools, as well as St. John Catholic School, take turns sending students, about 80 at a time, for a weeklong stay. Their teachers go with them, although they usually don't choose to sleep over.
The children bunk in cabins where they have to make their beds in the morning, keep their clothes folded and put away, and be quiet when others are sleeping.
But nighttime high jinks usually are not a problem, Monica said.
"You're so tired at night you don't want to stay up," she said.
When asked if they get homesick, the students vigorously shook their heads.
"They kept us so busy we didn't have time to worry about it," Monica said.
"The only time you feel homesick is when you get a letter from your parents and they say they miss you," said Jessi Morelock.
And Matt Meseke said he enjoyed getting a break from his sisters.
He and other students said they noticed each other growing more conscientious. At the family-style meals -- for which parents pay $44 a week -- the students politely asked each other to "please pass the mashed potatoes."
They cleaned up their own spaces and participated in group chores.
"A lot of people are used to just throwing their clothes on the floor," Matt said.
"I've learned teamwork and responsibility," Monica said. "I usually didn't clean my room every day."
At camp, she has to clean up her area, and she's realized she likes the looks of a neat space.
"It looks cool," she said.
The school's coordinator is Geary Myers, who has been there since its inception, first as a teacher. He has a staff of three teachers, an aide and a nurse. Also, several seniors from area high schools spend a week there as counselors.
The Outdoor School staff works with the classroom teachers during the week, and the classroom teachers usually expand on the work later when the children return to their middle schools, Mr. Myers said.
In addition to sixth-graders, the school also hosts day trips and one-night stays for elementary special education students, who go again when they're in sixth grade.
"I would hope that this program really gives everyone experience outdoors that gives them enthusiasm for the environment, the interaction of things," Mr. Myers said. "If they can't gain an appreciation for it, I don't think they're going to take care of it when they're mature adults.
"But there's also growth just as a person," he said. "It's learning how to be considerate of one another, how to work with different people, different ideas. I have parents who say, 'I still remember that week.' So it must have an impact on them."
Parent Bonnie Larrick remembers Outdoor School as a sixth-grader, as well as a 12th-grader, when she went back as a counselor.
When her daughter, Jobi, went two weeks ago, Ms. Larrick said she faced it from a different perspective -- letting her "baby" go away.
"It was very hard for me to let go," she said. But her daughter loved it just as much as Ms. Larrick did when she was a girl.
"It was great to go away from home for the first time," Ms. Larrick said. "The experience that the teachers gave us there was a lot different than what you get in school.
"They would let you taste the bark on the trees. It was good! It was sweet. Birch, I think, and sassafras."
Even though the Larricks live on a 46-acre farm, go hiking and spend a lot of time outdoors, the camp broadened Jobi's experience and gave her a real workout, Ms. Larrick said.
"She was exhausted when she came home," Ms. Larrick said. For students who don't get any exposure to nature, the week is invaluable, she said.
"They live in developments and they have no idea what it's like to go in the outdoors and learn about animals, and what we're doing to take that away from them -- all this development going on."
For Mr. Myers and the staff, the biggest challenge is the turnover of students every week.