BROOKSVILLE — During the school year, the Springs Coast Environmental Education Center is alive with the sights and sounds of students immersed in hands-on science learning.
But when school ends for the summer, the center perched on a bluff overlooking the Weeki Wachee River falls silent.
That is expected to change next year.
The Hernando School Board on Tuesday gave its initial approval for a summer day camp at the center that is typically closed during that season.
"It's a win-win situation," Cheryl Paradis, the Hernando County teacher on special assignment who manages the center, told the board. "We win because we offer a place for learning, the students win because they have a place to go, and you're going to win because it's not going to cost anything."
The center, on County Road 550 just west of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, sits on about 20 acres in the Weekiwachee Preserve and opened in 2005 as a joint project between the school district and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud.
Swiftmud paid $780,000 for construction; the school district enjoys a no-cost lease but pays to operate and maintain the site. The annual budget is about $150,000, but some of that is covered by grant dollars, Paradis said.
More than 6,400 students visited the center last year, taking lessons in its four classrooms but spending just as much or more time exploring the river by kayak and hiking in the surrounding scrub habitat.
The proposal for next summer calls for two, one-week camp sessions of up to 48 students and four teachers. The regular day would run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for $125 per student. Extended care would be offered from 7 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 6 p.m. for an additional $50 per week.
The program calls for hands-on activities like plant and animal identification, GPS mapping and nature photography, among others.
The camp is expected to break even and possibly bring in a modest profit that could be put back into the center, Paradis said.
"This is long overdue and we appreciate all the work and time and effort you've put into it and will put into it," board member John Sweeney said.
The board is expected to formally approve the plan at a regular meeting next month. After that, registration dates at the center would be announced, Paradis said. Parents would pay to reserve their spot on a first-come, first-served basis.
Paradis modeled the proposal based on visits to similar camps in Hillsborough and Pasco counties. Those counties run the camps all summer, and the goal is to expand Hernando's camp, too, she said.
"This is our maiden voyage, and we'll see how it goes," she said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.