New center emphasizes outdoor education

Snakes, frogs and salamanders are creepy creatures to some, but to Fresh Air Family, an outdoor education non-profit, reptiles and amphibians make for an unforgettable hands-on lesson.

Fresh Air Family has been awarded a $375,000 grant to open a 21st Century Community Learning Center at Parnell Memorial Library. The grant will be distributed in three $125,000 payments over a three-year period.

Katie Williams, library director, said the center will primarily serve Montevallo Middle School students after school and on weekends. The center will open Feb. 17. Hours are Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 3-5 p.m., and Tuesday and Thursday from 3-6:15 p.m.

The center will also provide after school transportation from Montevallo Middle to the library throughout the school week, Williams said.

Fresh Air Family has developed a multiple intelligence curriculum using place-based education. Place-based education uses students’ curiosity about their immediate environment to get them interested in learning about various subjects. In this case, students will learn about natural sciences.

Alabama is ranked fifth nationally in biodiversity, yet most elementary and middle school environmental science programs are based on generic national studies, said Fresh Air Family Executive Director Verna Gates. Gates said Fresh Air Family’s motto is to “teach that all living things deserve respect, from the ant to your little brother.”

“Ecologically, Alabama is a natural wonderland, yet so few people are aware of it,” Gates said. We want students to understand what makes this land so special, while giving them a scientific approach to life.”

Students will learn about Alabama’s natural history by developing long-term experiments and projects, and attending presentations by naturalists and professors from Fresh Air Family’s network of community contacts.

Students will also participate in at least six Saturday field trips with their families, and learn about Alabama plants and animals and their habitats.

The University of Montevallo and the Cahaba River Society are two of the center’s community partners that will offer field trips. The trips will then expand outside the city limits to include all six eco-regions in Alabama.

Williams said the center is a welcome addition to the community.

“The center will be a great resource for our middle school children,” Williams said. “It’s one more step in educating our children to be leaders of tomorrow in our community.”

The center is one of the first to be located in a library rather than a school. Gates and Fresh Air Family Education Director Martha Bains discovered many middle school students from low-income families spent after school time in libraries as opposed to supervised care.

“We wanted to give the students a positive program in the library so that their time would be well-used in the after school hours,” Bains said.

In addition to natural sciences, the center will allow students to explore multiple interests such as drawing, painting, dancing, music, reading and writing through on-site enrichment activities.

“In this program students will get to learn deeply about topics that matter to them, working in the core reading, writing and math enrichment along the way,” Bains said. “They will learn to express themselves in ways that showcase the talents of every student rather than just those who are good at reading and writing.”

Parents interested in registering their children at the center are urged to attend one of three orientation sessions. Session dates are Feb. 12 from 6-8 p.m., Feb. 14 from 10 a.m.-noon and Feb. 16 from 1-3 p.m. There is a $10 registration fee.

For more information, call 527-7489.