SACO, Maine — Ferry Beach Ecology School in Saco is only about a half-hour drive from Portland, but it represents a dramatic change of scenery for some of the city’s students.
On Monday, seventh-graders from Lincoln Middle School arrived at the campus, which offers dormitory-style living and walking distance to eight different ecosystems — including the beach, forest, salt marsh, pond and dunes.
In many areas of Maine, easy access to at least one of those ecosystems, if not several, is taken for granted by young people. But in Portland, the most urban and heavily populated place in the state, barriers can cut students off from hands-on ecological education.
Some students are immigrant newcomers to Maine, known for its outdoor recreation and wilderness, while others face poverty that confines their families to dense urban neighborhoods where food and services are within walking distance.
“Many of these students have not had the opportunity to get close to nature, especially the sea — to get close to the ocean,” said Phyllis Hey, community coordinator for Lincoln Middle School and Presumpscot Elementary School. “We have kids from all over the world … but it’s not just [multinational] diversity [that has prevented some kids from having access to Maine nature], but economic as well. Maybe we do live close to the shore, but it doesn’t mean they all have access to it.”
This year’s seventh-graders represent the school’s third year visiting Ferry Beach Ecology School, which throughout the school year cycles school groups through its facility for visits ranging from a few days to a full week. The ecology school, which uses the campus of the Unitarian Universalist camp and conference center during the offseason months, attracts classes from all over New England, said Associate Director Maureen Duggan, but the organization is seeking to increase the number of Maine kids served at the site.
Hannah Wilhelm, a seasonal instructor at Ferry Beach Ecology School, said teachers with the outfit are prepared to pitch environmental lessons to students from diverse backgrounds.
“There are students who refuse to sit on the ground because they think it’s dirty, and other kids who go out hunting with their dads every weekend, can track deer and pheasants and are at one with the forest,” she said.
Each day features three hands-on ecology lessons for participating students, who eat, sleep and have free time at the property as well. The adventurous program made sense for administrators at Lincoln Middle School, said Duggan, as the school is promoting a curriculum heavy in sustainability and science projects.
Last week, the school and its students were recognized for their in-house energy sustainability efforts by the Maine Environmental Education Association during an awards ceremony in Wiscasset.
Ferry Beach Ecology School provides the outdoors complement to those efforts, said Duggan.
“Even kids from Portland don’t always get outside anymore,” Duggan said. “They’re city kids. For a lot of them, this is the first time they’ve seen a shooting star. Or they’ll get up in the morning and watch the sunrise for the first time.”
She said the “Nature at Night” lessons can be a particular cage rattler for some urban students who have never been in the woods after dark before.
“It’s scary at first for some of them to be outside in the woods at night,” Duggan said. “It’s really a very new experience for them.”