"We are suspending the school programs at the Audubon Center and Lefferts Historic House for the upcoming year. This will allow Park staff the opportunity to explore how to best structure and fund this important program. These changes to school programs will have no effect on our BASE high school or the Heart of Brooklyn BCAP summer program. Moreover, we encourage teachers to continue to visit the Park on field trips and enjoy what is Brooklyn’s greatest outdoor classroom: Prospect Park."
This is a damned shame, people. Who gets laid off? Not bureaucrats or "star-chitects," but already low-paid docents with the guts to introduce buggin'-out Brooklyn schoolkids to the mysteries of nature—including giant cockroaches (right). When we visited last year, the blattoid beauty at left was being wrangled by one of the staff educators at the wonderful Audubon Center, whose positions are being cut or eliminated, according to the park.
My passion for this piece of the park's mission stems from years of simiilar work as a volunteer at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Like the Audubon guide at left, I've seen humbling magic take place between city kids and nature. Once, I lifted a turtle out of the pond and told a breathless semi-circle of middle-schoolers that they could touch it gently with one finger. Each one touched it, some reluctantly, most with a reverence befitting the climax of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." On their own, without a structured program, they would have sat on a bench and whined for lunch. Or never come at all; too few teachers feel eager, it seems, to put "boots on the ground" for a nature-based field trip without a guide, workshop and "learning standards."
All of which are still up on the park's website, oddly. "Audubon Center staff teach by asking questions, engaging students, and exploring Prospect Park's 585 acres of meadows, ponds, waterfalls, and woodlands," it states. Well, not anymore, they won't. In 2010, more than 11,000 kids participated in school programs, according to the park's annual report; presumably this coming year that will go down to zero.
I wonder whether the Audubon Center's various "partners," including Con Ed, Verizon, and Audubon New York, were actively prodded to step up and save the school programs. Or is the blush of novelty wearing off this grand initiative, as the new glamour girl—the $70 million Lakeside rink project—tosses her recently-cut ribbon provocatively at big donors? A year ago, the Alliance claimed that more than 70% of that fundraising had been achieved. This being the nonprofit world of grantsmanship and its dark arts, the money will be in strict "buckets"—no dipping into one to bail out another. How big a "bucket" could education possibly represent next to $70 million?
Not that Lakeside isn't a visionary project; it is, as the first phase (the shoreline restoration) already shows. But to gut the park's educational mission less than a decade after it was re-launched with such fanfare seems like bad prioritizing.
My suggestion? Tell the Prospect Park Alliance, borough prez Marty Markowitz, and your local City Councilthing and State Assemblything and State Senator-thing, to conjure up some funds for these programs. I believe there are in fact buckets of money, even in this tough economy. They just need to be dumped in the right place. Preferably a place with turtles...and children.