With unprecedented times comes the need for unprecedented collaborations, and this is the story of one of them, a union of public lands and public schools, of revitalization, of partners coming together amid a pandemic, and how crisis-management turned into a thriving future of free outdoor learning for all Prescott students.
In 1974 our local PUSD made the bold decision to open one of the first public school-owned and operated nature centers in the country, an 18-acre lot adjacent to Abia Judd Elementary and Granite Mountain Middle School (now Granite Mountain School). Drive out Williamson Valley Road, hang a right after the schools and step out onto the little winding trails to see it yourself.
The first growth began when the PUSD high-school shop class spent the summer of 1975 building a little log cabin on the site. This cabin still stands, as sturdy and weatherproof as ever, currently a home for the outdoor- education materials that the CNC staff use to facilitate their programs.
As the years progressed the CNC had several outstanding education directors and continued to run outdoor and environmental programming for all PUSD students. Some of the first school gardens in Prescott were installed there and the students grew food to donate to families experiencing food insecurity. Many members of our community who grew up going to our schools have shared fond memories with us of their Abia Judd or Granite Mountain teachers walking them over for science lessons and exploration time.
In the 1990s the tide began to turn. Round after round of federal and state budget cuts through the late ‘90s and early ‘00s pushed the CNC into financial hardship. In 1996 education director Nicole Trushell began looking for new opportunities, and started the Highlands Center for Natural History. The Recreation Services Department stepped up in 2006 and purchased the land through the City’s Open Space program to save the site, establishing the CNC Open Space Preserve. The Highlands Center moved to its new site off Walker Road, and the CNC fell fairly quiet. Neighbors continued to go for hikes, occasional events were held, such as a local wildflower celebration, but the bustling public-school program came to a close.
Which brings us to 2020 and the start of a new chapter in the story of our community’s nature center.
I am an adjunct professor of environmental education at Prescott College, and sit on the board of the Arizona Association for Environmental Education and our local Greater Prescott Outdoors Fund, where I direct the City of Prescott’s Children’s Earth Day events as well. I also recently became the director of the Prescott Creeks and Watershed Program, which happened to use the CNC for part of its programming. Early this past spring I began to see some of our community’s best assets and deep needs coming together.
Outdoor and environmental education began gaining popularity in the 1970s, around when the CNC began. Since then the field has evolved immensely, and significant research has shown the benefits of these practices. But the landscape of childhood has changed immensely as well.
According to the National Recreation and Parks Association, children these days have a daily average of 4-7 minutes of unstructured play time outdoors. That compares to their daily average of 7.5 hours of electronic media, meaning screen time. Some people have labeled the side effects of these childhood changes nature deficit disorder, not a medical diagnosis, but rather a catchphrase for the collection of symptoms many see as correlated to this lack of outdoor time.
Some of the symptoms include higher rates of obesity, nearsightedness, attention difficulties, anxiety and other emotional disorders, in even our youngest children. On the decline are Vitamin D levels, physical and coordination abilities, and general sensory-processing and executive-function skills. Although these are complex and daunting statistics, some of the answers are relatively simple, and in Everybody’s Hometown the medicine is abundant.
In Prescott we are well aware that a spark is all it takes to start a wildfire. My idea to bring together our CNC and public schools led me to a large collaborative fire. In May I began conversations with the original director and one of the founders of the CNC, Dr. Henry Dahlburg, who since the ‘70s had volunteered his time and energy as CNC caretaker.
Henry introduced me to Kelly Tolbert, the City ofPrescott’s Recreation Coordinator, and with her energy, connections, and commitment to serving her community, the CNC revitalization project was launched. Knowing that the best community projects are built with the community, not just for it, the City ofPrescott and our PUSD began a collaborative planning process.
Under the leadership of superintendent Joe Howard, who has spoken extensively on the value of hands-on and outdoor learning witnessed in his own teaching career, programs began to take form in July. First came the programs to meet the immediate need of children and families in the pandemic. To staff these programs and obtain immediate supplies, our local Greater Prescott Outdoors Fund, with matching funds from the City and several generous community donors, stepped up in a joint emergency fundraising effort.
This work has funded a part-time CNC Education Director, a full-time AmeriCorps member as Program Coordinator, and the site-revitalization and learning supplies necessary for launch. The team formed under the leadership of Kelly Tolbert and Joe Baynes at Recreation Services, with myself as the new education director, and Taylor White as the new program coordinator. Through partnerships with the Over the Hill Gang, Prescott College work-study students and other volunteers, two formal outdoor classroom spaces have been built.
Starting in early August the CNC and PUSD began offering predominantly outdoor and nature-based childcare programs for all PUSD students in kindergarten through sixth grade (one of several state-mandated care sites around town). The CNC and Granite Mountain School program provide breakfasts and lunches, laptops, wi-fi, distance-learning support, and of course plenty of time outdoors for healthy and active STEM-based exploration (science, technology, engineering and math). To bring in the STEM expertise, the CNC partnered with a local organization called GEM Environmental, “a scientific charity bringing educational resources to underrepresented students through scholarships, paid internships, and field experience within the STEM fields.”Not only did GEM contribute charitably to the project, it developed curricula on a wide array of topics, from botany and geology to engineering and scientific illustration, and facilitated hands-on STEM programs for K-6 students every afternoon.
And here we are. As of September 8 PUSD has moved into ‘hybrid mode,’meaning that half the students are in school on Mondays and Wednesdays and the other halfTuesdays and Thursdays, with no school on Fridays. So the CNC park rangers (Ranger Ellen and Ranger Taylor) continue to run daily programming every afternoon and all day Fridays, with GEM Environmental leaders comingWednesdays and Thursdays and new partnerships and programs growing in every direction.
With the end of the hybrid schedule the CNC plans to continue with free outdoor after-school programs for PUSD students. Perhaps most exciting of all has been the enthusiasm of the teachers in the nearby schools. The CNC is adjacent to Granite Mountain School and Abia Judd Elementary, putting over 1,000 students within a ten-minute walk.
Since the CNC reopened its doors for educational programming, several teachers have already jumped at the opportunity to host classes and clubs in the outdoor classrooms, and to partner with the rangers to develop long-term, meaningful outdoor-learning opportunities for their students. These PUSD-teacher-support partnerships are the main goal of the CNC-revitalization project.
One of these amazing PUSD educators is Nicole Peterson, the STEAM teacher and coordinator at Granite Mountain School, who opted to host her classes outdoors at the nature center this fall.
You can help
However, programs like Covid childcare, STEAM outdoors, Afterschool Outdoors, school clubs and classroom adventures and field trips cannot continue on their own. After a little over a month there are already around 200 public-school students relying on these daily programs for care and learning. The District and the City’s Recreation Services Department are discussing ways to formalize these programs under their departments, but donations are incredibly valuable to these children in this time of need. Donations can include anything from art and school supplies or nature-exploration materials to direct financial contributions.
Whether or not the hardships of this year are behind us, the CNC-revitalization efforts have shown us that Prescott knows how to come together and support our children, our families, our teachers and our community.
Find out more on prescottcommunitynaturecenter.org, by emailing the Park Rangers directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling the Prescott Recreation Services Department at 928-777-1558. You can also stay up to date on CNC happenings by following the Facebook page Prescott Community Nature Center or the Instagram account @communitynaturecenter.
Photos by Ellen.