By Damien Ruffner, School Programs Manager
One year ago, the Schuylkill Center entered a partnership with Extended School Day Care Center (ESCC), an organization in the Norristown School District that provides extracurricular programming to families in the Norristown community. This mentorship program connects Schuylkill Center educators with district students, allowing us to bring the wonders of the natural world into an afterschool setting far away from our forest.
Each week our educators bring materials for educational crafts and games into the schools for the kids to interact with. In our program, participation is always optional—we call it “challenge by choice.” So students can opt in if they would like, or just run around and play, if that’s what they choose to do. Because kids have agency to express their choices and interests, this allows the mentorship component to develop organically. When we connect to these young people on a human level, they’re always interested in what we have to say. One child entered ESCC with a reputation for acting out. But why didn’t he listen? Why didn’t he want to engage? The answer, I think, is simple: adults were not listening to him, so he didn’t listen to adults. What are his interests? After weeks of seeing him, I found the answer. Bugs and Superheros. Those are his interests.
The mentorship aspect of the program allows us to listen to these young people and get a feel for what they want to do and learn. If I’ve learned anything in my experience as an educator, I know one thing—all people want to learn, despite differences in ability, access, or marks of traditional success. But what do they want to learn? That’s where the disconnect comes in for many children.
Mentoring allows us to find those niches where kids can explore their curiosity in fun ways. They want to know about bugs? We bring in bugs. They saw a cool bird and want to know what it is? We bring in feathers, wings, and talons that complement that first spark in curiosity. They love playing tag? We adapt the game into “predators & prey” our Schuylkill Center take on tag where kids are constantly considering nature’s predator/prey dynamic.
Looking back on the program one year later, what exactly has been happening? What has been growing or changing? This program is now larger and more impactful than I originally thought it would be. Currently we go to four sites per week—a huge undertaking for part-time staff members. In addition to the two schools that we’ve worked steadily with over the past year, we are also entering others to expand the program into six of the seven public elementary schools in the district.
We have grown in every aspect of the program, from the educators to the number of site visits, and the dynamics of the activities we do. Thanks to our sponsorship from Arcelormittal, we now have the opportunity to reach many people in an area where typical academic resources are scarce. It is a true honor, and a heartwarming experience, to impact such wonderful kids. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
About the author
Damien Ruffner is the Manager of School Programs. His goal is to expand our programming to communities and schools that have little access to nature with an extra focus on the Philadelphia and Norristown school districts. He is a loyal and proud Hufflepuff! Damien’s favorite part about working in environmental education is helping folks reach the “AH HA!” moment.