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Students become Georgia's first virtual 4-H'ers By Sharon Dowdy

Thanks to a new pilot program, Georgia students may soon be able to attend 4-H meetings without leaving home. The new virtual 4-H club is being test-driven by students at the Georgia Cyber Academy.

“The cyber 4-H meetings are the exact same program we take into the brick and mortar schools,” said Melanie Biersmith, a Georgia 4-H specialist coordinating the online program.

GCA is Georgia’s first virtual charter public school. Students learn at home with a learning coach (usually a parent or grandparent) and must meet the same standards as every other public school systems in the state.

The brainchild of one woman

Biersmith credits the school’s Response to Intervention coordinator Leah Falls with the idea. “This project is the result of the will of one person and her positive experience with 4-H,” she said.

A former public school teacher in Henry County, Falls said she knew of the benefits of 4-H. All of her children were 4-H’ers.

“When our administrators asked us to think of ways to create more social contact for our GCA students, I immediately thought of 4-H,” Falls said.

She then approached Georgia 4-H staff with the idea to develop virtual club meetings.

“From our first face-to-face meeting, I think the Georgia 4-H staff was more intrigued and excited than I was,” Falls said. “We had a great conversation about virtual education and the possibilities of a partnership between GCA and Georgia 4-H.”

First meeting a success

More than 50 GCA 4-H’ers were online Jan. 25 for the first cyber 4-H meeting. The students logged onto their computers, viewed a presentation, or virtual whiteboard, and used microphones or chat boxes to communicate with teachers and other students.

“At that first club meeting, our students seemed very excited about 4-H and asked all kinds of questions about what 4-H offers,” Falls said. “Some of our students were already 4-H’ers and are very excited that they can now participate as GCA students.”

On May 14, the cyber 4-H’ers will visit the Rock Eagle 4-H Center in Eatonton for an in-person session.

Not just an online experience

“Their 4-H experience won’t just be online. All of these students will still have a local connection through their local UGA Cooperative Extension office,” Biersmith said.

And, as with all Georgia 4-H’ers, the GCA members can attend one of the five 4-H camps across the state for summer camp.

“We have set up a special summer camp for the cyber 4-H’ers at Camp Fortson in south Atlanta, or they can attend any of the other 4-H camps,” Biersmith said.

Biersmith is quick to clarify that home-schooled students participating in 4-H is not a new concept.

“We have a strong connection to home schooling families already,” she said. “Many Georgia counties have home-school clubs and/or clubs outside of the brick-and-mortar schools that home-schoolers can participate in.”

A starting point for growth

Biersmith hopes to see the virtual 4-H program grow to include all students, home-schooled, public schooled or private schooled.

“The development of online, virtual 4-H clubs allows even more young people access to the positive youth development and educational opportunities provided by Georgia 4-H,” she said.

At GCA, Falls’ only regret is that her students started 4-H late in the school year.

“I think we will generate even more excitement when the kids visit Rock Eagle,” she said. “Next year, I know we will have an even stronger club. With 5,000 students statewide, I think the potential for having the largest 4-H club in Georgia is here (at GCA).”

(Sharon Dowdy is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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