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Carroll County's 'Lorax' to retire after 38 years at Outdoor School

Steve Heacock has spent the last 38 years working with nearly every sixth-grader in Carroll County Public Schools at the county's Outdoor School.

As the school year ends, so does Heacock's time overseeing the school, which is located at Hashawha Environmental Center. During his career, he has not only taught students about the environment, but has also taught them invaluable life skills.

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"There are some things I do now that I thought, 'Oh, I'll never have to do this again'," Heacock said with a smile, seated in his office, where a coffee cup filled with bird feathers sat on a cluttered shelf amid numerous other animal and plant-themed items. "I will miss lots of those teaching moments — certainly I will miss people that are here."

Heacock retires, in addition to 75 Carroll County Public Schools teachers who retire this year as part of a retirement incentive program. Teachers will receive $1,000 for each year of service with CCPS, according to Jimmie Saylor, CCPS director of human resources. Heacock was not eligible for the incentive program because he is an administrator.

Heacock, known to colleagues as "The Lorax of Carroll County" after the Dr. Seuss character who fights to save the environment, bears a striking resemblance to the cartoon character with a long, wispy mustache.

"He's wonderful — he's just great with the kids," said Erin Fringeli, a nurse at the Outdoor School who has worked with Heacock for three years.

Heacock, a resident of Silver Run, was hired to work at the Outdoor School as a teacher in 1976 when it first began. He first applied for a health and physical education position, but the school system said there were no such positions available.

"They sent me a letter about interviewing for the Outdoor School position, which was new," he said.

He accepted and taught for 22 years until he was chosen to serve as administrator of the school in 1998.

Every sixth-grader in Carroll has the opportunity to spend a week at the Outdoor School, where they sleep in cabins and spend the entire week with fellow students and teachers immersed in nature. For many students, it's the first time they have ever been away from their families for an extended period of time.

"Every week we have a different group of students, but we're prepping for that next group, and that's a huge responsibility," Heacock said. "But what we get from it is kids that are happy, healthy and successful, and have a great experience."

Heacock said he hopes students leave the program with a "great experience in the natural world."

"For many kids, we're giving them their first real shot at environmental service," Heacock said.

He also wants to be sure students get a "sound, fact-based environmental education program," he said.

The Outdoor School aligned its standards two years ago to meet an environmental literacy graduation requirement implemented two years ago by the Maryland State Department of Education, Heacock said.

"I love teaching, but being an administrator has really been an important and I think we've accomplished quite a bit," said Heacock, who acknowledged he prefers teaching to the meetings and budgets that come with being a school administrator.

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Heacock said a large part of his job has been communicating. The school works with almost every student in sixth-grade. He and his staff also train high school students, who work as counselors at the school.

To ensure that each of the students gets the most from their experience in the program, many meetings with students, teachers and parents are required, in addition to tours of the school. Often, parents are nervous about sending their children for the entire week, Heacock said.

"A lot of it is reassuring them," Heacock said.

"One of the things that I'm proudest of that we've done is we've opened the doors as wide as we could," Heacock said. "We do a great job at taking care of students individually."

Heacock meets with teachers before students come to the Outdoor School to find out how they can enhance each students' experience. They often accommodate students with special needs, offering day programs for those who can't spend the night, and ensuring they plan ahead for students with food allergies.

"There's a huge amount of effort to know all we need to know about a student, and my job after that is arranging all of the resources," Heacock said.

Alicia Lee, a parent who set up a Change.org petition to save the program in 2013 when the school system considered ending it due to budget cuts, said Heacock not only makes kids feel comfortable but their parents as well.

"I was nervous to send my son at first, but he really reassured me," said Lee, whose son attends eighth-grade at Mount Airy Middle. Lee has four other children, who she hopes will attend the school, which she said was a great opportunity for her son to grow socially in addition to learning new skills.

"I hope that they really take their time and interview candidates," Lee said. "Not anyone can fill his shoes; he really takes the time to include everyone."

Staff members say they will miss Heacock.

"He was probably the best boss anybody could possibly ask for," said Mary Hoy, a live material specialist and retired teacher, who has worked with Heacock since 2000. "He's the kind of leader who just stands back and let's you fly — he doesn't burden you, he doesn't criticize us if we fail."

Hoy said instead of telling staff members what they should do, he gives them advice. Because he is never critical, staff members never hesitate to go to Heacock with problems or questions, they said.

It makes communication much easier for everyone, Hoy said.

Fringeli said Heacock will be missed by students, parents and staff alike.

"It will be sad because he's such a part of the institution," Fringeli said. "It's amazing parents will come through with their kids, and they will say,´Oh is Mr. Heacock still there — he taught me when I was a kid.'"

Heacock said he plans to spend more time fishing once he retires, and when school ends he will take a trip to the Gulf Coast with his wife Patti Heacock, a retired principal from Charles Carroll Elementary School.

But Heacock said his retirement from Carroll public schools will likely not be the end of his teaching career.

"I want to get back to my roots as a field-based educator," said Heacock, who may seek employment working for a nonprofit.

Hoy said whoever takes Heacock's place has "huge" shoes to fill. "I wouldn't want to be the person who takes Steve's job," she said.

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