Hands-on experiences, caring for God’s gifts remain hallmark of Environmental School

December 10, 2013

PLANTERSVILLE — When graduating eighth grade students reflect upon their careers in local Catholic elementary schools, they often mention the memorable time they spent at the School of Environmental Education (S.E.E.) with Sister Thomas Ann LaCour, O.P.

Such testimonies are frequently relayed to Sister LaCour, who served as S.E.E. director since the school opened in 1982 until transitioning to a new ministry earlier this year. She attributes the glowing feedback to the joy that comes from learning about God’s creations in nature.

“The great thing about the school is our the staff is always present to share with the kids and have a good time with them, learning and doing fun things,” Sister LaCour said.

The S.E.E. is an accredited school offering a supplemental education program to the parochial schools of the area. S.E.E. provides a four-day outdoor experience of God’s gift of nature while studying life cycles, food chains, the environment’s effect on man, man’s effect on the environment and the conservation of resources. The school is based at Camp Kappe in Plantersville. The youth retreat center is owned and operated by the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston and supported through the Diocesan Services Fund.

Father Ben Smaistrla began his leadership of Camp Kappe when he was the Director of the Office of Youth Ministry for the diocese in 1981, the same year the center was originally established. This past August, the St. Ambrose pastor stepped down as director. 

For three decades, Father Smaistrla and Sister LaCour collaborated on running Camp Kappe and the S.E.E.

“We worked together to make the facilities suitable to meet the needs of the school,” Father Smaistrla said. “Together we were able to meet the challenges that came our way. It was a challenging and fulfilling experience.”

An active advocate and leader for young people throughout the years, Father Smaistrla will remain involved in a consultative role with the Camp Kappe Advisory Council. The overall management for Camp Kappe is now conducted by Brian Johnson, the Director of the Office of Adolescent Catechesis and Evangelization.

Father Smaistrla credits Sister LaCour for being a strong leader and developer of the innovative school. 

“The students understood what was expected and returned home with a great respect for her,” he said. “They learned how important it was to care for the gifts God created and placed in our care to be distributed to all.”

The school offers students a hands-on experience with farm animals and gardening along with many other exciting adventures in outdoor education. “Hands-on” remains the operative word when describing the unique educational experience offered by S.E.E. Throughout the years, the school has received numerous awards for its contribution to Environmental Studies.

“The students who attended (S.E.E.) went home inspired and educated with all their new knowledge,” Father Smaistrla said. “For many of them, this was their first experience away from home and their first experience in an outdoor educational experience, with 130 acres as their classroom. Their enjoyable experience sparked an enthusiasm which made their younger peers look forward to attending Camp Kappe and S.E.E. the next year.”

Sister LaCour can relate numerous anecdotes that come from her many years of introducing city-dwelling children to rural life.

“Some of the kids just couldn’t believe the farm eggs they were holding are the same ones in the store,” Sister LaCour said. “One time, when we asked one of the kids to ‘water the calf,’ he poured water on the back of the calf. But that’s just it, (S.E.E.) is educational. And the students have contact with individuals who care about them.”

S.E.E. is offered to fifth grade classes. At present the School of Environmental Education serves five different Texas dioceses: Austin, Beaumont, Brownsville, San Antonio and Galveston-Houston. The school represents “more than just a field trip” for students enrolled, according to Kelley Pritchard, S.E.E. director/teacher.

“We have an opportunity to hike the kids around, teach them about nature and about God,” she said. “We reinforce their curriculum at school. We put a hands-on approach to their book-learning. (During hikes) we can stop and say ‘Hey, look at this. This is where an armadillo had burrowed a hole looking for insects.’ We can let the kids experience things and then explain it to them scientifically and through our faith as well.”

There are currently four full-time teachers and three part-time teachers serving 54 schools totaling approximately 1,400 students. Pritchard said the support from the various schools and parent chaperones has been invaluable over the years.

As for developing learning opportunities, S.E.E. has never idled. From the school’s inception 30 years ago, S.E.E. educators continue to explore ways to offer curriculum in new and engaging ways. For instance, through the generosity of donors, the school recently added a solar array and wind turbine for the benefit of the energy class — and to lower bills at S.E.E.

Presenting the education materials through a Catholic lens remains the most important priority, according to Jim Barrette, pastoral and educational ministries director for the Archdiocese.

“Involvement of prayer, Catholic Social Teaching, catechesis — it is all part of S.E.E.,” Barrette said. “The school continues to rise to the occasion by showing ways to care for the environment and understand the Catholic social doctrine of the Church.”

As long as eighth graders – current and former – speak of the cherished time they had bonding with classmates and experiencing environmental education, S.E.E. teachers will know they are on the right path, Pritchard acknowledged.

“One of the most gratifying moments in my entire career in environmental education was when I was working in the garden with the students and we were talking about photosynthesis, the plant life cycle and decomposition, and a student said ‘We just learned about this in school!’” she said. “I think that is proof that we are really fulfilling our goal of reinforcing what these kids are learning at the schools.”

“Learning (at S.E.E.) is experienced in a way which cannot be achieved in the normal classroom setting,” Father Smaistrla said. “It opens their eyes, their minds, their hearts to the world around them.”

For more information about the School of Environmental Education, visit www.archgh.org.