PLANTS, ANIMALS, AND OUTDOOR FUN
June 12, 2012
When Renaissance Middle School at Rand students spot Sabina Ernst in the hallway, they expect something fun to happen. The veterinarian and gardener might be there to share animal x-rays, lead them in bird-watching, or help harvest herbs in the school garden.
The Montclair, N.J., mother of two began volunteering at school when her oldest son, now an 8th grader, entered elementary school. Ernst cut back her working hours so she could be more active at school. Before long, she was serving on a curriculum advisory board and had started an ambitious grade-level gardening program. She also helped out in the classroom and became involved in various PTA activities. Where she really hit her stride, however, was sharing her access to and considerable knowledge of science with eager students.
Few kids will forget x-ray films Ernst displayed at a school science fair of a dog pregnant with seven puppies. More recently the x-rays of a classroom turtle’s intestines and stomach—one particularly fond of gobbling up gravel from the bottom of his tank—were the center of attention. And Ernst’s great interest and familiarity with bird-watching has led to the development of a bird ecology class she teaches at the middle school. “We talk about the ecology of birds and how that ties into the natural community. Kids learn how to conserve things and how to be good stewards of the earth,” she says. Under her direction they also do bird surveys out in the field and submit their findings to an online data collection program known as eBird.
While bird study is a wonderful pastime for the winter months, warm weather finds Ernst spearheading efforts in the school gardens. In 2010 Renaissance moved to a new campus vacated by an elementary school and Ernst, as a state-certified master gardener-in-training, has been instrumental in rejuvenating long-dormant garden beds. Herbs and lavender have flourished, but more significantly she has ignited students' interest in the whole growth process. A community outreach component has been worked in as well: Students harvest the lavender and make sachets to distribute to senior citizens' organizations.
Students, staff, and parents alike praise Ernst’s ability to bring a real-life component to educational pursuits at the school. Her gardening and bird ecology lessons connect kids with the earth, the community service tie-ins she devises connect them with those less fortunate, and through all these endeavors, the student body continues to become very close knit.
Ernst finds a simple joy in seeing kids’ reactions when seeds they planted sprout or they spot some rare creature winging across the sky. Often they’ll pass her in the hallway and breathlessly ask, “When are we going outside?” She says, “I feel like I’m making a difference to them. Like maybe they’re taking these little things we do and turning them into a passion that will last throughout their lives. It makes me feel really good to be a part of their growing up in that way.”
Writer: June Allan Corrigan
Photo: Dennis Connors