Park School: How science programs at Allen County Parks are meeting homeschool student needs

Education has always been a core component of Allen County Parks.

From wildflower hikes, to carpooled trips to visit caves in southern Indiana, and on-site discussions about edible plants, there are many nature-centered class offerings for area residents to choose from.

There are also classes, like scrapbooking, yoga “with a view,” and “donut talks and walks” (exactly what it sounds like), which are less nature-focused, but still take advantage of northeast Indiana’s natural surroundings.

But on a quick scan of the course offerings, a few subjects might catch your eye—classes on the hard sciences, like cell energy, nucleic acid and protein synthesis, and genetics.

Bob Dispenza, Park and Education Manager at Metea County Park, says these programs are a relatively new addition to the courses, aimed at giving students ages 13-18 a broader grasp of biology in a way that may not otherwise be available to them.

The science enrichment programs began about three years ago as part of the parks system’s Home School Series due to a demand for more high-core sciences from Allen County homeschool groups.

“No one is going to spend $400 on a microscope,” Dispenza explains. So, Allen County Parks stepped up to meet non-traditional students’ needs.

As northeast Indiana grows and evolves, these courses could become even more popular, considering that homeschooling and alternative modes of education are on the rise nationwide.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 3.3 percent of school-age children were homeschooled in 2016—nearly double the 1.7 percent who were homeschooled in 1999. Along with religious reasons, parents surveyed have cited the environment of schools as an important impetus to homeschool their child.

Natalie Haley, the Environmental Educator at Fox Island County Park, explains that for families who decide to homeschool in Allen County, the educational offerings available at county parks can even exceed the standards of what students find in traditional classroom settings.

While school classes have to follow set time limits, parks courses are more fluid, allowing the students and instructors the freedom to discuss concepts at length without being cut short by the next class.

Haley says the courses can also be tailored to help students meet state standards and accomplish personal learning goals.

“If (parents) ask and give us a standard ahead of time that they are trying to meet, we will work with that,” Haley says.

She emphasizes that the courses are not generating profit for the parks system. Instead, they are designed to cover costs and meet a need. For that reason, the science classes have a five-student minimum to make them feasible.

This year, science enrichment programs are offered twice a week to accommodate student schedules and demand. Many of the classes are taught by Ron Divelbiss, a retired public school science teacher and naturalist for Metea County Park. Other classes are taught by naturalist Jeff Ormiston, with the parks system.

So what are the most popular courses?

Dispenza says there is some difficulty in determining that. For instance, due to the limitations of equipment, some classes can only accommodate 10 participants. Weather can also impact the popularity of a program.

His specialty is astronomy, and he recalls a series of outdoor lectures that were supposed to involve star watching.

“Three astronomy classes … not a clear night for any of them,” he says.

Demand, too, can vary from year-to-year. He says the first year that they offered biology classes, they were quite popular. The next year, interest waned, and this year, there seems to be a renewed interest.

He reasons that it is the younger siblings of those who have already taken the classes who are ready for the material now.

Haley, too, notes that as she has worked with homeschool groups, she has seen children grow up and their families request more advanced programs.  

“We try to cover whatever demand is out there,” she says.

Learn More

Pre-K, K-12, and adult classes are offered at both Metea County Park and Fox Island County Park.

This winter, registration is still open for Home School Series dissection courses with Ron Divelbiss at Metea County Park. The pre-registration deadline is February 12th. Registration is closed for the remainder of the science enrichment courses. New courses will begin in the spring quarter for students ages 13-18 with preregistration.

For more information about science classes offered through Allen County Parks, check out the program listing on allencountyparks.org.

For a printable version, click here.

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