FOGG funding opens GoG Parks Plus program to more Title 1 students

       Most everyone knows the Kissing Camels rock formation at the Garden of the Gods, how perfectly named it is.

Wesley Hermann (right), a part-time staff interpreter for the Garden of the Gods, leads a group of students past the White Rock in the hiking portion of the Parks Plus program that's offered to grades K-6.
Courtesy of Bret Tennis

       What's difficult to imagine is never having seen it before… until the image pops up on a screen as part of a slide show during a recent Parks Plus field trip for kindergarteners at the Garden of the Gods Visitor & Nature Center. As the multiple cries of surprised delight fill the theater, it's clear that a new bunch of youngsters are getting their first look at one of the local wonders of nature.
       It's to expand such moments of discovery that the Friends of Garden of the Gods (FOGG) increased its donations for Parks Plus going into the 2011-12 school year. According to FOGG President John Demmon, the volunteer organization set aside funding for 1,000 grade-schoolers from Title 1 schools - at an average cost of $11 a child, including school bus and theater cost - to take the two-hour field trip during the current September-to-May time frame.
       A visit starts with the theater presentation, led by park interpretive staff and aided by several FOGG volunteers. The material is dependent on the grade level. Grades K-3 hear about rock formations and plant and animal life in the Garden. The show for Grades 3-6 offers details about how the formations were created. In both cases, a guided walk follows - with multiple staff and volunteer leaders to keep hiking groups small - in which the kids get to see many of the things they were primed for in the theater.
       Parks Plus times are available four times a week (twice on Wednesdays as well as Thursdays). Teachers are given an advance packet to prepare their students.
       Last school year, FOGG paid for 727 Title 1 students (350 from Westside schools). Of the 1,000 in Title 1 that FOGG is funding this year, 400 will be Westside, Demmon pointed out. (Also, FOGG covers some Parks Plus costs for all students.)
       The total number of students handled in the the program last year was 4,200.
       A Title 1 school is one with at least 75 percent of its students qualified for free or reduced lunches.
       Demmon noted that FOGG's Parks Plus efforts were aided this school year by a grant from the Osborne Trust Fund, which had bequeathed $1,000 to the group in 2010, increasing it to $3,500 in 2011.
       Parks Plus is key to FOGG's educational mission, Demmon said. “If we can start with young people, to get them to respect and value the Garden of the Gods, they will want to take care of it.”
       Moreover, the field trips synchronize with state educational standards, according to Bret Tennis, the Visitor Center's lead interpreter and coordinator of the Parks Plus programs. As a result, “while the students are having a great time on their field trip, they are also being prepared for information that will be on their standardized testing,” he said. “Our school programs are continuously modified little by little to best fit the most current needs from the schools we serve.”
       Tennis shares the same basic goals as Demmon and FOGG. “If I had to pick one aspect about our programs that I want students to come away with, it would be the simple appreciation for the Garden of the Gods,” he explains in an e-mail. “I am always surprised at how many students have never been to the GoG. I see our students as its future guardians, and they need to feel a connection to the park if we want them to continue to protect it.”

Westside Pioneer article