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Elachee uses outdoor hands-on activities to teach home-school students
Parent says monthly classes are 'worthy every penny'
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Alex Lewis, 13, measures his steps during a class. Forty-seven students are participating in the Junior Master Naturalist Program this year. Almost 50 students are participating in the Junior Master Naturalist Program this year at Elachee Nature Science Center in Gainesville. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Elachee Nature Science Center

Location: 2125 Elachee Drive, Gainesville

Phone number: 770-535-1976

Email: elachee@elachee.org

Website: elachee.org

For Elberton mother Tracy Bell, driving three hours round-trip to ensure her two boys can participate in Elachee Nature Science Center’s home-school program is “worth every penny.”

Bell’s two sons, Quentin, 17, and Zachary, 14, have been taking the course for four years, despite living an hour and a half away.

“It’s a hidden secret,” the mother of two said. “They have a phenomenal facility.”

The course, titled Junior Master Naturalist Program, meets the first Wednesday of the month at 1:30 p.m.

Each monthly activity focuses on a different outdoor element. September’s class focused on identifying plants and birds with an identification book. In October, students learned the structural and behavioral ways plants and other species interact with their habitats.

Last month’s class — the pond life class — proved to be one of the most popular.

“The boys really got jazzed,” Bell said, noting Quentin and Zachary are two of 47 students enrolled in the program.

On Nov. 4, students met at nearby Chicopee Lake to dig deep into the muds of the wetland area and pond. The students had to compare the soils and critters in the water to the soils and critters near Elachee.

“It’s all hands-on,” Bell said. “In the home-school community, we really believe in hands-on.”

Even Elachee’s Education Program Director Melissa Reid joined the fun.

“I was out there catching critters with them,” Reid said.

The critters they caught included bugs, small fish and other animals.

December’s class focused on geocaching and using a map, compasses and GPS devices.

Reid explained the outdoor activities keep students returning to the classes year after year.

“We try and spend most of their time outdoors,” Reid said. “We have fun.”

The center also intentionally changes the classes and topics by bringing in new speakers each year to encourage repeat students, she said. Reid also researches the latest topics in science to formulate the courses.

It seems to be working. While Quentin Bell will graduate in May, Zachary plans to re-enroll next year.

The students also have a small teacher-to-student ratio. During class, usually one teacher is paired with 15 students. And each teacher has at least five years of experience and are trained.

“They have so much knowledge,” Bell said. “They’re very nice. They care about the kids.”

Teacher Cindy Andrews has been working at the center for 15 years, with the past eight or nine as a senior naturalist.

“I teach just about everything they offer,” she said, which accumulates to 40 classes every year.

Andrews added she has taught the home-school programs since its inception.

“You get to see the kids month after month,” she said. “Whereas the others are there for an hour and then they’re gone after the class.”

Andrews drives from Murrayville on the monthly basis, but doesn’t mind the commute. She said she enjoys teaching classes, especially ones on water-quality issues.

“They get to go out into the woods,” Andrews said. “I believe the students enjoy it because they get to be with other students.”

In the August-to-May program, Quentin and Zachary meet with other home-schooled students in class, some from a homeschool group based in Winder, exposing both boys to other types of people, which would be the case if they attended public school.

But the Elachee program is different from other home-school programs in one key way.

“With most places, you pay and then you’re out the door,” Bell said.

With Elachee, they offer discounts on other programs and can take advantage of the center’s other amenities such as the walking trails for free.

“We have always stayed onsite and hiked for hours,” Bell said. “It’s really a phenomenal program. It’s a wonderful area.”

With the new year on the horizon, parents can still sign up their children for the five remaining classes of the Junior Master Naturalist Program. The program is geared toward children in sixth grade or older. Parents can also sign up their younger children for the First Wednesday Homeschool Program.

The remaining classes cost $85 for nonmembers and $65 for members, and a description of each class is on Elachee’s website. To register, call 770-535-1976 or visit elachee.org.

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