‘We’re calling ourselves the ‘new Herring Gut’

Herring Gut students with educator Georgie Burruss

It may sound a little crazy to call an organization that has been around for more than two decades “new,” but at this point in its history the board, staff and students at Herring Gut Learning Center in Port Clyde do seem to have the sense that their organization has undergone a transformation.

“When I joined the board a little more than two years ago, it was really at a point where people were shaking their heads and saying, ‘What do we want to be when we grow up?,’” says Kathleen Barker, who became Herring Gut’s executive director in August of 2018.

At that particular moment Herring Gut had completed two decades of working hard at developing a successful program of community-based, hands-on marine science education for St. George students. This was an approach to education that Herring Gut’s founder, Phyllis Wyeth, had hoped would equip local youth with the marine science knowledge and practical know-how that would allow them to earn a livelihood from the sea just as their families had been doing for generations—despite the fact that it was clear that the traditional fisheries were being depleted. But during those early years of bringing students to learn aquaculture at what was first known as Marshall Point Sea Farm, this kind of hands-on learning had been labeled “alternative education,” something only fit for students who were acting out in traditional classrooms out of frustration with trying to learn through academics-as-usual.

Still, over its first two decades of operation, Herring Gut had developed the physical infrastructure and curriculum-development experience to be able to offer meaningful instruction and experiences in aquaculture, aquaponics, marine science and even business to an increasingly wider range of middle-school students, middle- and high-school educators, summer campers and community members.

Executive Director Kathy Barker celebrating HGLC’s kelp farming program

The “aha” moment for that head-shaking Herring Gut Board was prompted, in part, by the fact that the relatively new St. George Municipal School District was embracing the very type of hands-on expeditionary learning model of education that Herring Gut had been pioneering for years. Seeing Herring Gut through that lens made it clear that Herring Gut, in fact, was already “grown up”—that what had been considered merely an “alternative” approach to education in general—and to marine science education in particular—was now being actively celebrated as cutting-edge and beneficial for all types of students. The question, then, was not about having something valuable to offer, but about how to significantly “scale out” what Herring Gut was already offering. And the key to scaling out, it seemed clear, was to not only work directly with as many students as possible, but to also work with many more teachers. Last year Herring Gut reached 499 students from over 28 schools. This year, Barker says, the number of students Herring Gut expects to reach is double that number, thanks to a new teacher-training it was able to provide at Messalonskee Middle School in Belgrade Lakes.

“The way we got into the Belgrade Lakes area was that a Herring Gut friend and donor, Don Borman, came to us and said, ‘We are doing so much in our district about the water but our kids need to be the ones involved.’ So with the aid of a two-year grant from his family foundation and additional grants from the Simmons Foundation, the Onion Foundation and the Sewell Foundation, we wrote a curriculum called “Fresh Water Forever” for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students. Then we took all the science teachers from that middle school and did three days of professional training with them. One of the grants also allowed us to go buy all the equipment they each needed in their classroom. So we developed this enthusiastic core of science teachers who are so excited to teach their kids all the different components that lead to healthy watersheds in their community.”

Now, Barker says, the goal is activism, encouraging students to become stewards of their watershed. And promoting healthy inland watersheds, Barker stresses, has everything to do with Herring Gut’s original mission of promoting a sustainable fishing economy in St. George and other coastal communities.

“Our kids here in St. George are hearing about climate change, they’re hearing that the fish are going away, they’re hearing from their families about maybe we should go into kelp farming. So they are living all of this climate change in an economic reality and that can be scary. So we’ve decided let’s embrace that. Phyllis’ focus was always on ocean stewardship and sustainability. And how can we not tag healthy climate onto that? So Herring Gut is really about ocean literacy, which involves inland watersheds as much as coastal communities, and it is about climate literacy. So we’re educating these kids here in the midcoast but also looking at how to educate students in classrooms elsewhere and we can do that by educating teachers.”

The Belgrade Lakes project also involved building new relationships, Barker adds. “This was a collaborative effort with Colby College Environmental Science Department, with the Seven Lakes Alliance as well as with the Borman Family Foundation. We are able now to support the teachers this year with an educator who will travel out there, help in presentations, help with any further development of lessons, build their confidence and knowledge base so they feel really prepared to go forward.”

To Barker, getting the “Fresh Water Forever” curriculum into more Maine schools holds a great deal of promise for having a significant impact on the state’s water quality. “That’s because, as they say, all the water runs down hill. So if we want our water here to be healthy water we need kids inland to know about healthy water. And so as we talk about what does the future hold for Herring Gut, that’s probably a lot of what it is. We’re calling ourselves the ‘new Herring Gut’—we still have a core mission of hands-on, innovative ocean marine science experiences focused on the students and community of St. George, but it is not just for St. George anymore. We’re scaling out our passion for ocean literacy and climate literacy this next decade.”

The only limitation at this point, Barker admits, is staffing. Herring Gut relies on fundraising, grants, and some income from the school districts who benefit from its educational programs. This year a fall fundraising drive in Phyllis Wyeth’s memory hopes to benefit from a Matching Gift Challenge good through October 31. To find out more go to herringgut.org or call 207-372-8677. —JW

PHOTOS: Courtesy Herring Gut Learning Center

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