By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer
HERMITAGE — For 32 years, Hermitage School District has given its sixth-graders what it calls “the McKeever Experience,” a weeklong field trip to McKeever Environmental Learning Center, Lake Township, in which the kids learn about the environment by walking trails, catching frogs and sticking their fingers in cool streams.
This year, school officials have decided students need a new experience.
The sixth-grader teachers and Delahunty Middle School principal Eric Trosch told the school board Monday about the change and why they would rather go to YMCA Camp Kon-O-Kwee Spencer in Beaver County.
McKeever Director Fran Bires said the decision was especially disappointing to him considering his wife, Nancy, a Hermitage teacher, has conducted research showing how effective McKeever’s “Sunship Earth” program has been in shaping the students’ attitudes toward the environment into their adult years.
It also discounts the influence past Hermitage teachers have had on McKeever’s offerings, Bires said.
Sixth-grade teacher Rick Stephens said the school did not offer environmental science education when it started going to McKeever. Now, class lessons are steeped in environmental science, and McKeever does not offer much new material.
Kon-O-Kwee will offer “custom-built” environmental science lessons, he said, including units on aquatic ecosystems, recycling, environmental depletion and land biomes not offered by McKeever, he said.
Because McKeever cannot house the entire sixth-grade class - about 150 students - at one time, the class is split into two with each half spending a week at McKeever while the other half stays in the classroom., Stephens said. Not a lot happens in the classroom those weeks, he said.
“We no longer have to take a week off of instructional time,” Stephens said of attending Kon-O-Kwee.
Kon-O-Kwee offers slots later in the year than McKeever, and Hermitage teachers wanted to be able to go on the field trip after Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test time. This year, they plan to attend Kon-O-Kwee May 5-7.
McKeever uses student teachers and there has been a “decline” in the quality of the student teachers in recent years, Stephens said, while Kon-O-Kwee has a paid, professional teaching staff.
It costs $30,000 for McKeever’s five-day program; the cost traditionally has been split between the school, the Hermitage Parent-Teacher Organization and parents. Kon-O-Kwee charges $15,000 for three days.
Kon-O-Kwee can house the entire class and has separate male and female housing, which is not available at McKeever, and can handle individual student nutritional needs, Stephens said.
There also is a negative social aspect at McKeever in that some students are separated from their friends, while others get homesick being away from home for five days and four nights, he said. Kon-O-Kwee offers a three-day program with two overnights, Stephens said. Kon-O-Kwee also offers team-building activities that are in line with the school district’s anti-bullying efforts, Stephens said.
“The more you know about someone the less likely you are to harm them,” said Kon-O-Kwee Director of Camping Services Tim Murphy, who attended the meeting.
School board member Rob Gelesky, a West Middlesex Area School District teacher, said he has attended Kon-O-Kwee a number of times with fifth-grade students and endorsed the change.
“Our kids love Camp Kon-O-Kwee,” Gelesky said. “It is the best camp going.”
Trosch said the McKeever Experience is a long-standing tradition for Hermitage students, and he thanked the McKeever staff for “all their years of dedicated service as well as the shared knowledge of environmental education that they have provided to our students.”
“Hopefully, we’ll create a new tradition,” Trosch said.
Bires said he met with Trosch, Stephens and the sixth-grade teachers and they expressed no qualms with the curriculum, McKeever’s facilities or the cost. Their only beef was with the length of the program, he said.
He responded that “Sunship Earth” is a trademarked, copywritten program that “retrains” young minds as to how the earth functions. The program looks at energy flows, food chains, habitats, plant and animal adaptations and the diversity of life, he said.
With travel time, students are really only at McKeever for four full days, and to cut the program to three days or less guts its effectiveness, Bires said.
He said he “doesn’t buy” that students are getting in the classroom what McKeever offers.
“You learn better when you have something in your hand,” he said.
Kon-O-Kwee’s team-building and other non-environmental programs take students away from the reason they are at camp to begin with, Bires said.
“I have a hard time convincing myself and calling it environmental education,” he said. “It’s outdoor education. It’s a socialization experience.’
Teachers who bring their students to McKeever are asked to review the program and have routinely praised the staff and the program, which is in line with state standards, he said.
Bires acknowledged it can be difficult for children to be away from their homes for a length of time, but contended that a change of scenery can be good.
“You can really turn them on,” he said. “They’re not going home and jumping on their Gameboys or their (computer) monitors or their TVs. “
Nancy Bires did her doctoral dissertation on “Sunship Earth’s” long-term affect and found that students still think back to what they learned at McKeever when they consider environmental issues as adults, her husband said.
“It works,” he said. “It’s effective.”