“This kind of education makes such a difference,” he said. “If you find something engaging and meaningful for kids and give them some focus, they’ll do great things for you.”
Weddle is retiring this year and according to Principal and JGEMS Board Member Joe LaFountaine he is “irreplaceable.”
“Mike is the best teacher I have ever seen,” LaFountaine said. “He has his students doing things I can’t believe.”
The JGEMS program was created in 1999 first as a magnet school to attract students to Waldo Middle School where JGEMS is now housed.
“The school was under-enrolled,” Weddle said. “They needed a way of drawing kids to this building.”
Weddle was the natural person to take on the project given his history teaching environmental education at Waldo. He had spent an entire summer traveling for the Jane Goodall Institute and working with Jane Goodall.
“I became committed and fanatical to using the environment as a structure for all sorts of things,” Weddle said.
He and a group of teachers spent a year planning for the opening of the magnet school. Weddle asked Jane Goodall if they could name the school after her and she said she would be honored.
After four years as a magnet school, they took it a step farther and became a full-fledge charter school. Now four years later, the school has built an entire program and functions as its own entity within Waldo Middle School.
The education that JGEMS kids get is unique. They spend time in the classroom, but also a lot of time on field trips to places such as Opal Creek, the coast, and, yes, Costa Rica.
“It’s all about making connections,” Weddle said. “It makes such a difference when students can apply their skills from the classroom in some other context. Kids have to see that there are connections.”
The curriculum consists of projects and field trips all of which culminate with the big eighth grade excursion. This year’s seventh graders are now in the process of choosing both their eighth grade excursion and their project. They first brainstorm ideas. This year’s session yielded such places as Alaska, Yosemite, Hawaii, and the Grand Canyon. Once they narrow the list down through a series of votes, the students break up into groups and research the finalists and attempt to sell their destination to the other groups. They look into such things as cost, possible research projects and how much travel time must be spent. After the presentations, the class votes and the destination is finalized. Later the students are put into groups based on interest and work together on a research project, which they will work on throughout the year and into the excursion.
Weddle has worked hard to build this program and is proud of it; however he insists that things will go on just fine without him.
“We have hired two new teachers for next year and I am convinced our teaching staff will be stronger than ever.”
As to being “irreplaceable,” he laughs.
“I really don’t think so. People say that probably because of how much volunteer work my wife and I do,” he says.
Weddle’s wife, Karen, volunteers for the program as well. She also will retire this year. They plan to spend their retirement traveling in France (their daughter lives there) and working with the school on environmental learning projects.