Natural Programming

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.”

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