WAYNESBORO, Ga. - There are lots of sounds one would expect to hear in a schoolyard, but the "thunk" of aluminum arrows slamming a target isn't one of them - except at BurkeCounty Middle School.
The school is one of 19 institutions statewide chosen to pilot a Georgia Archery in the Schools Program sponsored by the Wildlife Resources Division.
"It's an official part of the curriculum," said physical education teacher Larry Keller. "Every kid takes P.E., and every student will have the opportunity to take archery."
The program, funded by Hunter Education dollars, provides each school with 11 Mathews Genesis compound bows, five targets and stands, five dozen arrows and a 30-foot Kevlar backstop to catch stray arrows.
"It's been very well received," said Keller, who became certified as an archery instructor last summer. "Being a rural county, a lot of the kids here bowhunt or are interested in archery."
So far, the program has proven popular, both with kids who hunt and others who simply enjoy the competition and focus that accompanies archery class.
"I have a simple bow at home, but this has gotten me interested all over again," said James Houser, 12, of Sardis. He was lined up with a half-dozen classmates, shooting three-arrow groups into the foam targets.
"So far, I got one bull's-eye," he said. "Other than that I'm still in the red and white rings."
Archery, Keller said, is a wonderful physical activity that can be practiced indoors or out. It also creates a level playing field in terms of athletic ability.
"Everyone can do it," he said. "You can take a kid who may not be a star football player or athlete, and have him shooting bull's-eyes."
Opie Bailey, a seventh grader, already bowhunts on his family farm near Waynesboro, so the school program is just another opportunity to practice. Other kids, like Willie Jackson, are not hunters, but still enjoy the sport.
"We've done this since the first day of school," he said. "It's a lot of fun."
Although the $2,400-per-school startup cost was financed with hunter education dollars, the program is designed to encourage interest in shooting sports and the outdoors - not specifically hunting.
"We're not promoting this as a hunter recruitment kind of thing, but certainly some of these young people will take up archery as hunters," said Nick Nicholson, a WRD biologist and archery program coordinator.
"Whether it's target archery, backyard fun or hunting, all of those things we see as supportive of shooting sports, and our agency sees that as a positive thing," he said.
The program was modeled after a similar venture in Kentucky. Nicholson hopes archery can be offered in more and more Georgia middle schools in the future.
"In Kentucky they started with just a few schools, and last year they had more than 100," he said. "We've got just 19 so far."
The division's role, he said, is to train the instructors. This year's participants attended a two-day workshop in Morgan County last August, and another training session is scheduled for January.
"We train teachers who become certified as NADA (National Alliance for the Development of Archery) instructors," Nicholson said. "And we require that they have the signature and support of their principal and superintendent."
Although hunting in Georgia is on the decline as a larger percentage of the population is concentrated in urban areas, archery is an opportunity to reach people of all ages and locations.
"They're learning how to shoot. It's a life skill," Nicholson said. "It's socially acceptable and teaches patience, self-discipline, marksmanship, cooperation with other students, following directions and sportsmanship."
READY FOR DEER? Archery season has been under way for weeks, and Georgia's primitive weapons (muzzleloader) season began Saturday. Next Saturday , however, the majority of Georgia's deer hunters will be afield.
That's when the regular firearms season opens - with an estimated 275,000 hunters participating, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
This year's herd size is estimated at 1.3 million animals, with a target harvest of about 480,000. In the Northern Zone, the season runs through Jan. 1, with Southern Zone hunters having until Jan. 11 to put venison in the freezer.
Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.