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Coastal Sketch: Sandie Cecelski

WILMINGTON – Sandie Cecelski got the chills as she watched the N.C. Coastal Federation’s new coastal education center makes its way to its new home at Wrightsville Beach. As one of the group’s board members and a high school marine science teacher, this was a proud moment.

“The board worked so hard to get this,” she says, recalling when the historic beach house floated by barge up the Intracoastal Waterway in June, 2013. The Fred and Alice Stanback Coastal Education Center officially opened 11 months later in May, 2014, providing educational programming to people of all walks of life.

“There is something going on there all the time,” Cecelski says. “It really serves as a hub of coastal educational outreach all year long.”

Sandie Cecelski helps a couple of her students in the Marine Science Academy at Ashley High School with their hands-on bathymetry classroom exercise. Photo: Tess Malijenovsky

Sandie Cecelski helps a couple of her students in the Marine Science Academy at Ashley High School with their hands-on bathymetry classroom exercise. Photo: Tess Malijenovsky

To say Cecelski is fond of coastal education would be an understatement. She’s dedicated the last 30 years of her life as an enthusiast and ambitious marine science teacher in New Hanover County. The Harrison, Tenn., native moved here in 1986, after graduating from the University of Tennessee with a degree in biology. She took her first job at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher.

“It was a part-time summer job, but a great place to work,” she says.

In fact, it’s where she met her future husband, Richard. By August Cecelski was hired to teach science at Hoggard High School in Wilmington. And when E.H. Ashley High School opened in 2000, she joined the faculty.

Cecelski instrumental in co-creating a marine sciences program there, known as the Marine Science Academy. It has a college-level curriculum for high school juniors and seniors around the county. Also, the academy is one of only three such programs on the East Coast that offers college credit courses in marine science and oceanography for students continuing their education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington or Cape Fear Community College.

The academy was a career-long dream for Cecelski, who was thrilled when it finally took off. “It was an idea waiting to happen for 20 years,” she laughs.

The year-long course includes a combination of summer enrichment activities, rigorous classroom work and hands-on field experiences. The students learn about coastal art, regional history, scuba diving and more. Also, students must participate in the National Ocean Science Bowl.

The veteran teacher is committed to ensuring the academy continues long after she is retired, by involving parents, science teachers, local environmental groups and marine industries.

When she isn’t in the classroom, driving a school bus to one of the academy’s many off-site programs, kayaking, fishing or wading in a tidal pool, you might find her working on a boat for Carolina Ocean Studies.

When she's not teaching kids about the marine environment, Sandy Cecelski is out there experiencing it first hand.

When she’s not teaching kids about the marine environment, Sandy Cecelski is out there experiencing it first hand.

The eco-tourism company is owned and operated by her husband and offers a variety of educational programs up and down the coast of North Carolina. While its Cape Lookout Discovery program that combines history and coastal science is very popular, Cecelski likes the boat tours of Masonboro Inlet, which can host 60 to 140 students at a time.

“I love everything to do with the local coast and outreach education, so it’s perfect for me,” she says.

Cecelski and her husband have been members of the N.C. Coastal Federation for over 20 years. The veteran teacher became more involved with the group as she began collaborating Ted Wilgis, one of the federation’s coastal educators.

“Ted and I have worked together on a variety of projects,” Cecelski says. “He provides an in-depth oyster lesson for my classes each semester, including oyster dissection.”

The duo also created a stormwater education program for ninth graders. She works with other members of the federation on projects that include salt marsh habitat restoration and water quality protection. In 2013, the group gave Cecelski a Pelican Award for exemplary commitment as a teacher in helping to protect and restore the N.C. coast.

Cecelski has served on the federation’s board of directors since 2011, and she’s with the abundance of work that the group does in the southeast region. “I love the direction the federation has taken,” she says. “They have impacted the local community in such a positive manner, investing in our natural resources while helping to support economic growth.”

Cecelski and her husband are the proud parents of two children, Lauren and Jake. Lauren is a chief resident at the University Alabama Birmingham Department of Dermatology and recently accepted a position to join the dermatology faculty at Yale in June, 2015. Jake is a junior at UNCW majoring in environmental studies.

Even when she’s vacationing, Cecelski is researching and learning. The couple travelled to Scotland last year, where they toured the coastline and learned about the similarities and differences between Scotland’s coast and the barrier islands here. “It was an amazing adventure,” she shares. The couple hopes to travel to more coastal locations in the next few years.

In fact, Cecelski plans to retire in the not too distant future. In addition to travelling and spending time with family, her plans to volunteer in educational outreach with the federation. She loves the classroom environment and has relished her time with New Hanover County Schools, she says, but after nearly 30 years, she is looking forward to a more informal approach to education.

“Once a teacher, always a teacher,” she grins. “I hope the federation doesn’t tire of me!” It’s a sure bet that with the experience, energy and enthusiasm that Cecelski shares with others, the federation will keep her busy in the years to come.

About the Author

Denice Patterson

Denice Patterson is a preschool teacher and free-lance writer in Ocean Isle Beach. She has degrees from Penn State and N.C. State universities and has been writing about people and places in North Carolina for 25 years. She has been published in the "North" and "South Brunswick" magazines, "Carolina Gardener" and "Our State" magazine.