Natural Programming

What do you do when funding starts to dry up and registration falls because you begin to charge for your environmental programming? If you're like Bluff Lake Nature Center, located in a low-income area of Denver, you come up with creative solutions while continuously improving the way the program is run.

Bluff Lake Nature Center began operating in 1995, dedicated to reaching kids in kindergarten through fourth grade. This was not a random decision. It was based on research that this group was the most underserved in environmental education.

Like all good parks and recreation programs, Bluff Lake has always paid attention to its constituency, constantly seeking feedback and responding to that feedback.

For the first few years, given that most of the surrounding schools were located in a low-income area, Bluff Lake subsidized busing and the cost of the programming.

"Last year, funding started to go down and we needed a way to increase revenue sources, so we experimented with a fee program. We did a lot of research and found that $3 per child was on the average to low end of the spectrum. We also stopped paying for busing, and found a tremendous drop in our registration," says Sue Schafer, Bluff Lake's education director.

"This year we met that challenge by doing a survey of 500 teachers to find out if we were meeting the needs of their education programs, their students, and if our curriculum met theirs. Our curriculum was designed according to Colorado state standards for science education, but we weren't sure that teachers were really aware of that and how they could use it to meet their curriculum needs."

In fall 2002, Bluff Lake instituted a scholarship program that correlates to how many children are enrolled on each school's free and reduced lunch program. If 70 percent or more of the children are on the program, Bluff Lake will waive the program fees and reimburse the school for busing costs.

Bluff Lake surveyed Denver's cultural district -– including the museum and Ocean Journey –- to find out how these institutions were helping low-income students. Schafer says they had some great ideas that Bluff Lake tailored to its needs and turned into a cut-and-dried policy that created a fairness scale based on the income of the schools.

Special funding has come from the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the three adjacent counties' SCFDs and foundations. These partnerships are invaluable for both funding and creative financial ideas.

Bluff Lake has also expanded its availability beyond the Denver and Aurora public schools. Add these factors together and funding, though a constant concern, is less of a concern.

"We're still meeting the needs of the students, but we were also able to bring in additional resources to keep it self-sustaining," says Schafer. "Funders want to start seeing you be able to keep yourself afloat. We finally developed a balance and our program is almost filled up for the year."

Sustaining Programming

Perhaps the most important factor was being relevant to what was going on in the classrooms, particularly since Colorado had instituted standardized testing that tied results to school funding, called CSAP (Colorado Student Assessment Program).

For its first six years, Bluff Lake's curriculum was tied to on-site programming only. To ensure relevance and stay in line with what teachers needed, in 2002, Bluff Lake instituted a new three-pronged attack –- in-class, field trip and follow-up.

Teachers receive a curriculum packet with pre-trip and post-trip activities, then Bluff Lake Nature Center staff goes to the school and gives a one-hour orientation and introduction.

The class then follows up with the meat of the program, the field trip to Bluff Lake and the two-hour program run by staff and volunteer naturalists.

When students go back to school, teachers conduct follow-up activities. Now having what is a complete science program under their belt, it's Bluff Lake's hope that the classes will return the following year to participate in more advanced activities.

"We designed fun and informative classroom presentations, but they're changing daily, because our staff evaluates and the teachers make comments. Then we adjust the programs accordingly," says Steve Norris, Bluff Lake's executive director. "It's normal, adaptive learning and practice."

The new programming model comes with its own set of teacher evaluation and follow-up. This ensures that all-important relevance and helps keep classes returning year after year.

"The teachers have received pre-trip and post-trip assessments. The teachers fill out an evaluation, and the students fill out both evaluations and assessments," says Schafer.

"The evaluations gather qualitative data, and the assessments gather quantitative data. We want to show, mainly funders, that our program is making a difference and that a student is gaining x percent of knowledge by coming through our program."

Another program addition has been an added emphasis on literacy to solidify Bluff Lake's dedication to helping schools meet the demands of the CSAP tests.

"The first CSAP test in third and fourth grade is on literacy. We've created journals with pictures where they can write about their visit. On the third and fourth graders' assessments the final question is essay-type to get them writing," says Schafer.

"Not only are we trying to meet the state standards, we're also trying to show that our program is helping the children meet the benchmarks of CSAP."

Hitting the Road

Getting the word out about Bluff Lake's retooled programming has meant building on the database of teachers who have used the program with a lot of pavement-pounding.

"This year has been a challenge to market back to teachers that we're back, we've got free programs available and special funding. We've been inundating them with information. Our database goes specifically to teachers who have participated (1,000 teachers)," says Schafer.

Last year, Schafer had an Americorp volunteer who went out to the schools to talk to teachers and administrators about the program. Bluff Lake also enlisted the help of the Denver Center for Media, which donated a 30-second television spot that Bluff Lake uses as part of its presentations.

Marketing to schools goes hand-in-hand with recruiting volunteers. Both keep the staff at Bluff Lake Nature Center busy, and both require personal contact.

"I go to volunteer fairs, speak to retired groups, Kiwanis clubs, retired senior volunteer programs, photography clubs, garden clubs… You name it, I've talked to them," says Schafer. "We get a lot of people who say, 'Oh, that sounds like fun!' Then they see how taxing a group of third graders can be…"

It can be tough working with little kids, but for volunteers who stick with the program (who obviously like working with kids to begin with) that's offset by a structured program that offers continuing learning opportunities for the volunteers.

"Because we're so small, we've adapted our training. What most parks do is offer once-a-year classroom training on all the different aspects of the ecosystems they will see," says Schafer.

"We get one person every now and then, so we get them right on and start an on-the-job training and mentor program. They start off by following our guides, observing the programs, and they get a big manual with lots of information. Then they do team teaching where they teach with another guide, and that guide will mentor them, give them feedback and jump in if they get stuck. Eventually they start teaching on their own, then we evaluate the teaching at least once a year."

The volunteers share certain commonalities –- a love for kids and the outdoors, and a lot of personality. As Schafer says, "That comes at any age or gender."