ANN ARBOR, MI – Michael Tucker grew up attending Thurston Elementary School in Ann Arbor and spending afternoons playing at the Thurston Nature Center.
On a perfect afternoon this week, he guided students in grades two to five through the nature center doing things he always loves to do. They counted how many bees they could find in 30 seconds as they stood among the pollinator bushes, spotted a vulture and a dragonfly within 10 seconds of each other; has searched for salamanders under logs and has searched for real estate for a new mouse house the group is planning to build.
Tucker, a member of the Nature Center committee, and who worked at the Kensington Metro Center for 20 years, runs a Nature Navigators class that gives parents in Ann Arbor public schools time to pick up their children after work – even though it is is only for one afternoon.
The class is one of many Rec & Ed enrichment classes the district is launching this fall as it seeks solutions for parents affected by its decision to largely discontinue its before and after care offerings. school for 2021-2022.
Although it’s technically considered a class, Tucker said the idea is to make learning happen organically. His enthusiasm for science and nature is palpable, from his shirt with a tardigrade to the celebration whenever a student answers a question correctly.
Having the Thurston Nature Center as a classroom doesn’t hurt either, as eight students spend the afternoons among the cattails and purple aster, digging up worms and showing flowers in the bushes.
“Whenever I lead a nature group, what I appreciate the most is that you kind of feed off their enthusiasm,” Tucker said. “You get that thing back that you had when you were a kid and sort of lose as you get older. You get excited about something because you want them to be excited, and it starts to happen naturally.
The AAPS bills the enrichment courses as a “redesign” of its extended day programming. The more than 40 classes add to the reestablishment of some extended child care, before and after school, for approximately 300 students in eight elementary schools.
About 720 students are enrolled in enrichment classes this fall, said Jenna Bacolor, executive director of the AAPS community division, noting that class sizes have been reduced as a COVID-19 precaution. Other vendors who previously offered Rec & Ed in the district suspended 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, like Tucker, to help the families of the district’s 1,300 students in need of before and after school care. Bacolor said 11 individual instructors from the community have come together to teach art, fitness, nature exploration, drums and breakdance, and to help run the AAPS Let’s Play program.
Other small local 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 businesses with local franchises, like Nutty Science, and Nuts About Science, have stepped in to teach enrichment classes this fall, Bacolor said.
Bacolor looks forward to enrichment classes that act as a “community building” with people of all ages engaging in topics of mutual interest, she said.
“I can’t wait to see how our classes complement what happens during the school day and support the socio-emotional learning of all students after having had a very difficult year last year,” said Bacolor.
After a full day in class, Tucker said he tries to create a balance by engaging with students in a way that is both entertaining and educational, allowing them to let go.
“I try to get them to learn things,” Tucker said. “They absorb everything. One of the reasons I thought about doing something was because I knew there was a problem with after-school care and people were going to look for something to do.
So far Mi Jung’s sons Sean and Ryan have embraced outdoor learning and are eager to participate in further enrichment classes once French and science classes start in Thurston. Elementary this week.
Jung said she tried to find ways to make sure her sons had arrangements for all days of the week while she worked after hours. They have piano lessons on Mondays, in addition to enrichment lessons, leaving only one day a week when they have to walk home from school.
“I was very worried because no one can take care of them after school,” she said. “Fortunately, they have a few programs three days a week. Looks like they really like the program.
Sean said he liked being able to learn outside of the traditional classroom during the enrichment class.
“We can touch animals and plants,” Sean said. “We can move around and do things instead of just studying in books. “
Parent Kent Hatcher said he was thrilled to see his children thrive in the wild during the class, after more than a year of communicating with their friends via screens due to COVID-19.
“They still have the social interaction, but they don’t get dirty,” Hatcher said of the virtual chats. “So we want them to get dirty. “
While he and his wife work from home and live in a neighborhood close to Thurston, having programs like Nature Navigators allows him to pick up his daughter outside of the traditional workday.
“It’s not as much of a disadvantage for our family as it is for others, I’m sure,” he said. “It was a real curved ball that was thrown.”
The enrichment courses complement the traditional AAPS youth sports programs, which are already mostly filled for the fall. AAPS also offers early childhood classes for children 0-5 years old, as well as a variety of enrichment and fitness classes for adults.
The district offers classes at $ 12 and $ 30 per class in each of the 13 elementary schools that it does not offer before and after school care. Class sizes this semester typically range from 10 to 15 students, Bacolor said, with some open-air classes for up to 25 students.
“The pandemic has obviously hit the job market pretty hard and some of our longtime suppliers just weren’t ready to come back yet, for various reasons related to the pandemic,” Bacolor said.
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