SCHENECTADY -- Beekeeper Cindy Elsenbeck stood in front of a table of third- and fourth-graders Thursday while dressed in a yellow shirt and bee antennas.
This wasn’t unusual for her, as it helps her get across to students the importance of her work. And her favorite part of talking to students in the Schenectady city schools’ Summer Enrichment Program is watching their faces as she tells them how many bees she has in her yard.
A total of 60,000 bees.
“People, and children especially, are terrified of bees,” Elsenback. “So I want them to know that the bees aren’t going to hurt them unless they’re threatened. I want them to know the benefits that bees provide us … If we don’t have bees, we have a problem.
For four weeks each summer, students in grades K-8 take part in the school district’s enrichment program. This summer is the program’s third year of engaging students as they take a break from academics, and this year saw another increase in student involvement, from last summer’s 1,000 to now roughly 1,300.
Every Tuesday and Thursday from July 8 to Aug. 2, alternating grades (third and fourth) visit Central Park for swimming lessons and other activities. This is the first year that the program includes additional educational and recreational activities with the help of various community partners.
The students are now taking advantage of the park, as SCORE campers did in previous years before Central Park’s specialized camp dissolved when the district’s program started taking shape. Schenectady students now get an hour of swim time, an hour of studying animal and plant life with ECOS (environmental volunteer group) and an hour of tennis lessons with 15-Love.
“This is the first year that we’ve been able to utilize the park and all that it has to offer,” said Program Coordinator Sara Schneller. “So getting kids when it’s summer, we want them to be outside.”
Schneller said that the program’s goal is to not only offer parents a place for their kids to go in the summer, but to allow the 1,300 kids in the program a chance to grow academically and socially.
“We’re piquing kids’ interests in a number of different ways and really building some background knowledge on concepts, so when they come into the school year, they have that little bit of knowledge,” Schneller said. “And they have that confidence to say, ‘Hey, I learned about this over the summer,’ and to continue that involvement in engaging in conversations and then wanting to learn more about certain topics.”
For example, ECOS teaches children a bit more about nature and gets them to see things in their backyard a bit differently than they normally do.
On Thursday, volunteer and wildlife biologist Ed Kautz taught kids about animal tracks and gave them an opportunity to create their own. Kautz showed students rubber molds of animal paws and had them press the paws down in sand to examine the different imprints they make.
“These are the tools that a wildlife biologist would use to identify tracks,” Kautz said.
Darwin Roosa, another ECOS volunteer, took the children out to a stream in the park and joked with them that the stream is the Mohawk River. Normally, the kids will call him on his joke.
“Many of them kind of know the Mohawk if they live near it or around it,” Roosa said.
He shows the students the source of the water, a pipe under the baseball field, and has them drop colored bottle corks in the stream to see which one flows to the end, or “finish,” the fastest. He later has them find insects and dip cups into the water to make other discoveries.
“I don’t think they have much experience just dipping little cups to find things, so they really react positively,” Roosa said. “Here’s a natural thing that they don’t get to do very much on their own. To be able to do this as an activity in the park, it’s really pretty cool.”
Zeyana Hilts, a student at Pleasant Valley Elementary, said swimming and learning to float on her back was her favorite experience of the day, but she really enjoyed the ECOS sessions.
Although she didn’t remember what bugs she caught, she was happy to catch them and even happier to put them back.
“They look like little tadpoles but they live in the pond over there,” Hilts said. “They had them in water and they had plants in them. We got little things to suck them up and we put them back in water.”
Ava Wilson, also of Pleasant Valley, was happy enjoying the program with her friends.
“We looked at this huge bug and we looked at these little circular bugs.” Wilson said. “I also learned how to float on my back and swimming on my back.”
And on top of swimming and researching bugs, students got to play tennis for an hour on Thursday, which also added to the diversity of the day’s events.
Marcus Griffin, engagement specialist for the program, was hitting balls back and forth with kids and keeping them on their toes. The students, like Pleasant Valley’s Navier Sutherland, seemed to be enjoying themselves at the court. Sutherland even said he now sees himself playing tennis on his own time.
And while the swimming lessons aren’t anything new, many students still said it was their favorite part.
“[We] have a place for your kids to go in the summer where they’re going to have fun, they’re going to be excited about going, and they’re going to be learning while they’re there,” Schneller said.