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Video: Experimental 4-H Program for Freshman in Bethel Still Evolving

4-H instructor Norm Greenberg teaches students at the 4-H Camp and Learning Center at Bryant Pond in Bethel.
Robbie Feinberg/MPBN
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4-H instructor Norm Greenberg teaches students at the 4-H Camp and Learning Center at Bryant Pond in Bethel.

Originally published on June 20, 2016

It’s not unusual for high school students to spend time in the community or work on a special project. But one Maine school district has taken that a step further. On almost every school day during the school year, freshmen at Telstar High School in Bethel are bussed to a local 4-H camp, where they work on anything from English to building solar panels and hiking trails. The school views the “Telstar Freshman Academy” program as a new way of tackling the state’s new proficiency-based graduation standards. But, parents and students are still coming around on the idea.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIJhBfijwjA

“So, where do you wanna go? The first thing I see is cars and people…”

Telstar Freshmen Emily Hanscom and Georgia Piawlock have been given the task of identifying the different levels of the earth’s atmosphere and how they all interact with humans and nature.

“So pollute, litter, and killing off…”

But instead of reading through a textbook, the two girls are exploring the grounds of the 4-H Camp and Learning Center at Bryant Pond in Bethel. They study the overgrown trees and murky water in a nearby lake, taking the lessons they just learned and putting them to the test in the outdoors.

“We felt that by putting students in that kind of an environment, they would have the ability to have access to the lake, other things we don’t have access to back at the school,” says Dave Murphy, District Superintendent for SAD 44, which includes Telstar.

He says ninth graders across the state already attend these kinds of outdoor academies, but only for a week at a time. Murphy came up with the idea to create one for the entire school year when he began thinking about how Telstar might meet Maine’s new statutes requiring students to show “proficiency” in certain subject areas. Murphy says he saw 4-H as the solution. 4-H Director Ryder Scott was happy to oblige, and helped create a program combining science, English and humanities through large, community projects.

“In this, the standards are still being met, but through this project that is engaging them, connecting them with the community, giving them hands-on skills that parents and students are starting to realize will really benefit them for their future,” Scott says.

Right now, as part of a unit called “Pay It Forward,” student teams are designing projects as varied as walking trails, snack programs, and this one — a solar array for a pig barn on the 4-H campus, which freshman student Tashawna York says has a very practical application.

“We want it so there’s power inside the barn,” York says. “Then during the winter time, when it’s cold, people don’t have to come on Christmas to unthaw the ice for the pigs and stuff.”

It’s in the midst of these kinds of projects, advocates say, that students become independent and really own their education, working in a close-knit community. But some freshmen say there’s still a lot to fix.

“I like the program. I like the idea of it,” Josie Forbes, a student in the program says. “I just think they haven’t gotten a handle on it yet.”

She remembers arriving at the academy in the middle of winter. Ice had frozen over the camp’s gravel pathways, leaving students cold and falling on the hard ground. And she questions some of the educational benefits of activities such as having students put on waders and test water in a nearby river. Forbes says she and her friends really had no idea why they were doing this testing, and felt like they were just helping provide some labor for a local company.

“We’ve been referred to as guinea pigs by staff members, which is a little discouraging,” she says. “They could really improve on it and make it a really good program. But they don’t take suggestions from us really well.”

The freshman academy has been controversial in Bethel ever since it was proposed back in 2014. Many parents believe that their kids shouldn’t be forced into this brand new learning environment for an entire year. They worry that this experiential approach isn’t structured enough and could be hurting the kids who thrived in the traditional 9th grade setting. The administration’s response? Change is hard, but necessary for students to meet proficiency standards. And 4-H Director Ryder Scott says the experience is good for kids.

“Think back to experiences you had that are difficult in your childhood or adolescence,” Scott says. “In the moment you didn’t like it, didn’t like being wet or cold. But those are experiences that help us to grow. And those are pieces of the design. Challenging students to step out of their comfort zone.”

Superintendent Dave Murphy says he’s already seen the ways that the new approach is paying off, citing several recent student presentations demonstrating knowledge and confidence he attributes to this new approach. And based on how the program has worked so far, he plans to expand this experiential learning to Telstar’s higher grades in the future.