Herring Gut: Working to protect its ‘heart and soul’ through fresh and creative growth

Herring Gut students with Executive Director Sam Belknap in the greenhouse

“I’m much happier with the kid I am this year than the kid I was last year.” That, according to board chair Peter Harris, was the repeated refrain from the Herring Gut Learning Center’s most recent crop of middle school students during an end-of-school-year graduation event for family and friends.

“Student after student spoke about the pride they have developed in themselves by being successful in doing the job they were assigned to do above and beyond learning how to do math better, learning how to write better and, in some cases, how to read better—and in all cases by learning how to look someone in the eye and tell them what they are doing and understanding that they can find an adult who cares.”

The “jobs” to which Harris is referring are those involved with the businesses and activities in which Herring Gut’s students participate as part of the center’s year-round experiential science curriculum—raising and harvesting fish, growing and marketing lettuces and other greens, farming kelp, hatching lobsters.

“It’s knowing that one of them is president, one of them is in charge of water quality, one is in charge of the greenhouse,” Harris explains. “They actually see the result of growing up in something external to themselves. The other thing is that they see themselves growing up in something internal and that is a function of both the experiential thing and the fact that the faculty really stays tight with them and in some respects is all over them—talking with them, having them explain and share what they are doing.”

At the graduation, Harris notes, the students’ parents also took time to offer their perspective on the impact of Herring Gut on their sons and daughters. “They told us, ‘You make a difference in my kid’s self confidence—it helps them in school, it helps them in the friends they make and in their ability to resist adverse social pressure.’”

Harris says the Herring Gut board has begun the work of ensuring that its core mission of providing what he calls “life-changing educational opportunities for our kids” can be sustained for years to come. Doing this, he explains, is requiring fresh, creative growth.

While the core program now serves about 20 students a year, it is an expensive program to run because of the infrastructure involved—the fish tanks, greenhouse, lobster hatchery, kelp pool and laboratory. But by capitalizing on that very infrastructure, Herring Gut has already figured out a way to expand its offerings to about a thousand additional students through short-term “investigations,” an increasingly popular summer camp and new partnerships with entities ranging from the Island Institute and Hurricane Island to Colby College and other educational organizations with similar missions.

“The investigations are six- to eight-week programs that schools pay us to do. We have a summer camp which is now serving 60 kids with a waiting list and we have added an additional week this year. And with the partnerships we believe we will likely do better working together than separately, working at a bigger scope and scale.”

Harris says that the new Colby College partnership, in particular, brings an added benefit to the learning center’s core program that may seem intangible, but is invaluable. “Colby is expanding out their work in environmental science and policy and they really want to be doing work on the coast. They also are interested in our model of alternative education. And we have the infrastructure they don’t yet have. So their students have come here to do research or to learn how to become environmental science educators. Seeing these college students so engaged, our kids get to see possibilities for themselves.”

For Sam Belknap, the center’s new executive director who joined the staff this past January, the expanding programming for middle school and high school students is an exciting new frontier and challenge—but he also is enthusiastic about developing new professional development offerings for teachers through enhancing Herring Gut’s own programs in such areas as classroom aquaponics, but also by working in concert with Hurricane Island, the Island Institute and the Aquaculture Research Institute at the University of Maine. “These programs increase access to curricula for educators—and students, in turn, benefit from educators who are more plugged in to things like aquaculture.”

Belknap, who grew up in a lobstering family out of Round Pond on the Pemaquid peninsula, has run his family’s lobster dock, but also has a PhD from the University of Maine in anthropology and environmental policy. “My research focused on how fisherman leaders have been engaging in policy and management to make Maine’s lobster fishery one of the few sustainably managed fisheries in the world.”

Besides bringing a sensitivity to the big-picture aspects of marine education and fisheries management, Belknap says he also brings something else to his new job—a heartfelt conviction that kids who might not thrive in purely academic settings or who have other difficulties should not be written off. “I come from a coastal community not too different from this. It’s the understanding of what Herring Gut means to our core group of students that I bring—they are the heart and soul of this enterprise. That’s why I am excited to come into work every day and see the kids in our core program and in our kelp growers program and in our River School from SAD 40 make small break-throughs, see the moments of accomplishment, the moments of personal growth.”

Harris, who has been a member of the Herring Gut board for nearly three years, credits Herring Gut founder Phyllis Wyeth with an important insight about what a learning center like Herring Gut could offer the St. George community. “At the beginning she didn’t know what this was going to look like, but she knew that this fishing community was changing for the worse if it didn’t figure out how to adapt to climate change and to the movement of the fishing industry. Eventually, she realized that maybe the thing would be to educate the next generation. The educational philosophy has been about the belief in the importance of these working waterfront communities, but also about the belief that the kids have something worthwhile to contribute to them. If we were in Idaho this would be about farming. You take the thing that is critical to where you live and build around that.”—JW

PHOTO: Courtesy Herring Gut Learning Center

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