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.”

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