By Kris deGuehery
Director of Institutional Advancement
Unlike previous generations, today's children are growing up connected to technology that they use for learning, entertainment and communication. While advancements in digital communications have brought them closer to information and people, some behavioral experts fear they are becoming disconnected from the real world.
A group of educators in Niagara County has taken a bold move to ensure students don't lose touch with the nature that surrounds them.
Stella Niagara Education Park is introducing a visionary program that integrates classroom teaching with complementary outdoor experience. Children of every age are taken out of the classroom and into expansive gardens, meadows and forests surrounding the school where they explore, discover and experience the diversity of nature.
"We think the use of technology for learning and communications is a wonderful development for society," Principal Sister Margaret Sullivan said. "But we also realize how important it is that the next generation learn about their natural world, too. Our 104-acre setting provides us with a unique opportunity to take the classroom outdoors and allow children to experience nature for themselves."
To develop the program, SNEP hired educator Coleen Edwards, whose specialty is field-experience and inquiry-based teaching.
"I've worked with our teachers to integrate nature into their regular programs," she said. "Whether the children are exploring a vernal pool or studying trees, they're applying what they learn in the classroom to their outdoor experience. And they're also taking what they discover outdoors into their classes where it has practical applications."
Every class - from science and math to English and religious studies - has an outdoor component that allows the children to go outdoors more often, get fresh air and exercise while they enhance their learning.
"Our goal is to provide children with a well-rounded primary school education that teaches them the skills they need to succeed while building strong character and instilling a sense of responsibility for the world," Sister Margaret said.
Stella Niagara Education Park is ideally situated for this experimental program. Not only does the expansive school property include safe areas for the children's exploration, it is also located across from the historically and environmentally important Stella Niagara Preserve. This scenic, 29-acre area on the shore of the Niagara River was previously owned by the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity, and recently sold to the Western New York Land Conservancy so it can be protected from development in perpetuity.
"We welcome the students and their instructors to the Stella Niagara Preserve. It's an ideal use of a pristine area that is home to rare birds and fish, and a safe habitat for migratory birds and endangered plant species such as the ninebark shrub," said Nancy Smith, executive director of the Land Conservancy.
While the biodiversity of the property makes it a prime learning environment, its historical significance also provides a good lesson for students.
"British troops landed at this site in 1813," said Zach Collister, president of the Historical Association of Lewiston. "From there, they marched to Youngstown where they captured Fort Niagara and held it for about 18 months. This was an important event in American history. Prior to that, the meadow was a popular landing spot for Native Americans living in the region."
Stella Niagara Preserve is also known for the diversity of fish that inhabit that portion of the Niagara River, and for a small chapel that miraculously survived an ice jam and flood in 1955.
"With our own property and the adjacent Stella Niagara Preserve, we have an unparalleled environment in which to educate and enrich our students," Sister Margaret said. "We're delighted to have found a way to integrate the natural world into our studies. Parents of our students are very supportive of this new aspect of our teaching, and we hope that, when other parents learn about the program, they will feel compelled to consider SNEP for their children's benefit."
To learn more about the new program at Stella Niagara Education Park, visit www.stella-niagara.com.