Nature is a classroom in this after-school program in Ann Arbor
ANN ARBOR, MI – Michael Tucker grew up in Ann Arbor’s Thurston Elementary School and spent afternoons playing at the Thurston Nature Center.
One scenic afternoon that week, he took second- to fifth-graders through the nature center and did things he still loves to do. They counted how many bees they could find in 30 seconds while standing between pollinator bushes, spotted a turkey vulture and a dragonfly within 10 seconds of each other; was looking for salamanders under logs and looking for real estate for a new mouse house that the group plans to build.
Tucker, a member of the Nature Center committee who worked at Kensington Metro Center for 20 years, leads a Nature Navigators class that gives parents at Ann Arbor Public School time to pick up their children after work – if only for an afternoon is.
The class is one of several Rec & Ed Enrichment classes the district is rolling out this fall to help put together solutions for parents affected by the decision to largely end their pre- and post-school care offerings for 2021-22.
While technically considered a class, Tucker said the idea is to make learning organic. His enthusiasm for science and nature is palpable, from his shirt with tardigrade to celebrating every time a student answers a question correctly.
Having the Thurston Nature Center as a classroom doesn’t hurt either, because eight students spend the afternoon among cattails and purple asters, digging up worms and showing flowers in the bushes.
“When I lead a nature group, the thing I enjoy most is that you feed on their enthusiasm,” Tucker said. “You’re getting this thing back that you had as a kid that you kind of lose as you get older. You’re excited about something because you want them to be excited, and it just starts by itself. “
AAPS bills the enrichment classes as a “redesign” of its extended daily program. The more than 40 classes also restore part of the extended pre- and post-care for around 300 pupils at eight primary schools.
Around 720 students are enrolled in enrichment courses this fall, said Jenna Bacolor, executive director of the AAPS Community Division, noting that course sizes have been reduced as a COVID-19 precaution. Other vendors who previously offered Rec & Ed through the district held back this fall for the same reason, limiting the number of options AAPS can offer, she said.
A staff shortage has led the district to work with nonprofits and other community partners such as Tucker to provide pre- and post-school services to the families of the district’s estimated 1,300 dependent students. Bacolor said 11 individual teachers from the community have stepped up to teach the arts, fitness, nature exploration, drumming and breakdancing, and run AAPS ‘Let’s Play program.
Other local small businesses like Arbor Chess, All the King’s Men, G-Powers and Language Adventure as well as nonprofits like Theater Nova and Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra and larger companies with local franchises like Nutty Science and Nuts About Science have joined in to take the enrichment courses teaching this fall, said Bacolor.
Bacolor looks forward to enrichment classes that serve as “community building” and involve people of all ages in topics of common interest, she said.
“I look forward to seeing how our classes complement everyday school life and support the socio-emotional learning of all students after a really tough year last year,” said Bacolor.
After a full day in the classroom, Tucker said, he tries to strike a balance by engaging with students in fun and educational ways so they can flourish freely.
“I’m trying to get them to learn things,” Tucker said. “You just record everything. One reason I thought of doing something was because I knew there was an issue with after-school care and people would be looking for something to do. “
So far, Mi Jung’s sons, Sean and Ryan, have dedicated themselves to outdoor learning and look forward to taking other enrichment classes once French and science classes begin this week at Thurston Elementary.
Jung said she was trying to find ways to make sure her sons make provision for each day of the week while she works outside of school. On Monday they have piano lessons in addition to the advanced courses, so that only one day per week is left for the way home from school.
“I was very concerned because no one would be able to take care of her after school,” she said. “Fortunately, they have a couple of programs three days a week. It seems like they really like the program. “
Sean said he likes studying outside of the traditional classroom during the enrichment course.
“We can touch animals and plants,” said Sean. “We can go around doing things instead of just studying from books.”
Parent Kent Hatcher said he was excited to see his children thrive in nature during class after communicating with their friends on screens for more than a year due to COVID-19.
“They still get the social interaction, but they don’t get dirty,” Hatcher said of the virtual chats. “So we want them to get dirty.”
While both he and his wife work from home and live in a neighborhood near Thurston, programs like Nature Navigators allow him to pick up his daughter outside of the traditional work day.
“It’s not as uncomfortable for our family as it is for others,” he said. “That was a real curve ball that was thrown.”
The enrichment courses are carried out in addition to the traditional youth sports programs of the AAPS, which are already mainly occupied for the autumn. AAPS also offers early childhood classes for children from birth to 5 years of age and a variety of enrichment and fitness classes for adults.
The district offers classes in each of the 13 elementary schools it doesn’t offer before and after school for $ 12 and $ 30 per class, respectively. Class sizes this semester typically range from 10 to 15 students, Bacolor said, with some outdoor classes that can accommodate up to 25 students.
“The pandemic has obviously hit the job market pretty hard and some of our long-time salespeople just weren’t ready to return for various reasons related to the pandemic,” said Bacolor.
Pivot to Enrichment Courses is “adapting to the workforce we have,” says the AAPS superintendent
Fall enrichment courses for Ann Arbor schools presented
Pre- and post-school care was reintroduced at two other limited capacity Ann Arbor schools