Beach school connects urban students with ecology

Lauren Nadeau, 12, a seventh-grader at Portland's Lincoln Middle School, checks water salinity with her classmates at the Ferry Beach Ecology School in Saco Monday March 26, 2012.
Lauren Nadeau, 12, a seventh-grader at Portland's Lincoln Middle School, checks water salinity with her classmates at the Ferry Beach Ecology School in Saco Monday March 26, 2012. Buy Photo
Posted March 27, 2012, at 1:17 p.m.
Last modified March 27, 2012, at 5:27 p.m.
Ferry Beach Ecology School instructor Hannah Wilhem (right) has her students from Portland's Lincoln Middle School sniff a soil sample taken in a marsh on the banks of the Saco River Monday March 26, 2012. Students are (from left) Leinani Farnsworth, 13, Patrick Crnogorac, 13, Sydnie Lowry, 12, and Alex Nim, 13.
Ferry Beach Ecology School instructor Hannah Wilhem (right) has her students from Portland's Lincoln Middle School sniff a soil sample taken in a marsh on the banks of the Saco River Monday March 26, 2012. Students are (from left) Leinani Farnsworth, 13, Patrick Crnogorac, 13, Sydnie Lowry, 12, and Alex Nim, 13. Buy Photo
Ferry Beach Ecology School instructor Hannah Wilhem shows off decomposing plant matter in a salt marsh soil sample in Saco Monday March 26, 2012.
Ferry Beach Ecology School instructor Hannah Wilhem shows off decomposing plant matter in a salt marsh soil sample in Saco Monday March 26, 2012. Buy Photo
Hannah Wilhelm (far left) leads a group of seventh-graders from Portland's Lincoln Middle School in a trek through a salt marsh on the banks of the Saco River in Saco Monday, March 26, 2012, at the Ferry Beach Ecology School.
Hannah Wilhelm (far left) leads a group of seventh-graders from Portland's Lincoln Middle School in a trek through a salt marsh on the banks of the Saco River in Saco Monday, March 26, 2012, at the Ferry Beach Ecology School. Buy Photo

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.”

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