After being away from Carroll County's Outdoor School for nine and a half years, Gina Felter is "thrilled to be back."
It wasn't an easy move when she left her job as a teacher at the Outdoor School for a biology, ecology and science-research teacher position at Francis Scott Key High School, Felter said. She returned to the Outdoor School July 1 as principal, replacing longtime administrator Steve Heacock, who retired at the end of this past academic year.
"I went into administration with the hope that someday I would be able to take over the Outdoor School when Steve Heacock retired; he was the one that encouraged me to go into the administrator certification program at [McDaniel College]," Felter said. "When I was a teacher here, I helped him with the orientations for the students, with the parent meetings, so when I was here — I was what we call 'the teacher in charge' when he wasn't on site."
Felter, who worked as a teacher at the Outdoor School with Heacock for three and a half years, and considers him a mentor and a good friend she still keeps in touch with, said she doesn't see herself completely filling his shoes.
"I'm not going to ever be able to replace Steve Heacock, but I feel very ready to take on the role of Outdoor School principal," she said.
During the 17 years she has worked for Carroll County Public Schools, Felter has worked at five different schools.
She began at Sykesville Middle in 1998, where she taught seventh-grade life science. She moved from Sykesville Middle to the Outdoor School in 2003.
After three and a half years at the Outdoor School, she left for Francis Scott Key High in 2006.
After teaching at FSK for five years, she was promoted to assistant principal at North Carroll High School in 2011. After three years at North Carroll High, she became assistant principal of Manchester Valley High in 2014.
While working at FSK, North Carroll High and Manchester Valley High, she said, she educated students and staff to help the schools to earn their Maryland Green School or Maryland Green Center status. Felter said she believes those experiences prepared her for the new role as administrator of the Outdoor School.
"A lot of the teachers and administrators at the different schools know me, so there is that familiarity there," Felter said.
Nearly every sixth-grader in the school system attends the Outdoor School, Carroll County's residential environmental school located at the Hashawha Environmental Center in Westminster, for five days and four nights. Outdoor School also serves as a resource for every school in the county, providing environmental science training and resources. "Our ultimate goal is to create positive environmental stewards," Felter said.
"So leaving [the Outdoor School], as hard it was for me nine and a half years ago, was one of the best things that could have happened to me," Felter said. "I have grown so much as an educator and as a leader; I really feel it prepared me to take on this role."
Heacock said he thinks Felter is "fully prepared" to be at the helm.
"She has the administrative experience, the Outdoor School teaching experience — but most importantly, Gina is very passionate about kids and the environment," Heacock said, adding that Felter has the compassion and empathy for students needed to be a successful administrator at the school. "Taking care of them is a huge, huge challenge. We get them for a short time, and we need to prepare them as individuals; I know that Gina will take the time to invest in them."
Coming from a school where there were more than 60 teachers to a school with a staff of 10 comes with a different set of responsibilities, Felter said.
"I will still handle discipline like I did at Manchester Valley," Felter said. "But I won't have to deal with any grading. … We don't have grades out here."
"Out here, they're active, doing hands-on activities and they're engaged," Felter said, standing beneath a canopy of trees next to the Hashawha center. "We have fun … but it's still a school."
Tom Vail, a teaching assistant at the Outdoor School for 18 years, worked with Felter when she taught there.
"The time away, I think, has made her a better administrator," Vail said. "That experience will make her job here a lot easier. She already knows the program for the most part — there have been a few changes since she left, but now that she's back I think it should be a pretty smooth transition."
Felter said that upon her return to Outdoor School she will also have the opportunity to begin teaching again.
Felter holds a bachelor's degree in wildlife science and pre-veterinary medicine from Virginia Tech, and a master's degree in teaching from Towson University. She said she has always had an affinity for the environment, which developed when she was a Girl Scout.
"The knowledge that I've gained from my course work in college, and from growing up and learning as much as I could about the environment, and being able to share that with people — I really feel is a gift," Felter said. "Being able to be here and to teach sixth-graders and also the high school counselors about issues that face our environment is really a special process."
The school uses a curriculum called environmental issue investigation to teach students through a hands-on process in which they collect data, analyze it and draw their own conclusions, Felter said.
Before the curriculum was changed to the current hands-on method, Felter said the thought was that students only needed to be exposed to the outdoors to develop an appreciation for nature.
"That wasn't happening — research showed that students, young people, have to collect data on their own, analyze that data and draw conclusions on their own about the state of the environment," Felter said.
She helped change the curriculum into the one that is currently in place, she said.
As far as improvements go, Felter said she wants to allow schools throughout the county to use data collected by students at the Outdoor School throughout the school year.
But she has no plans to make any significant changes to the current curriculum, which she described as a state model in environmental education.
"It's a very strong curriculum; it was founded on environmental science research," Felter said. "In terms of coming in and revamping the whole curriculum — I don't see that happening."
Felter said she wants to maintain traditions at the Outdoor School.
"I definitely want to maintain what has been established; Outdoor School is a leader for environmental education in the state," Felter said.