Connecting Residents with Local Parks and Government Through Educational Partnerships

March 5, 2019, Department, by Daniel Domsic

2019 March Social Equity Connecting Residents with Local Parks 410

In a small section of a school library in Fishers, Indiana, Danesa Stolz, chief naturalist at Fishers Parks & Recreation, tells listening first graders a myth about the symbiotic relationship a tree has with woodpeckers as the seasons change and the tree counts on the birds to rid it of parasites. The storytelling is just one part of the lesson being taught as part of the Nature First program, a special partnership between the park department and its local school district, Hamilton Southeastern (HSE) Schools.

The creation of Nature First was a pivotal moment for this young park department that serves about 90,000 residents in the suburb of Indianapolis, Indiana. After a summer study with local teachers and administrators, Stolz built the program to capitalize on the popularity of a favorite, local park, Ritchey Woods Nature Preserve, a strong relationship with the HSE Schools District and the ability to craft programming that meets Indiana Department of Education standards.

Back at the library, after the students hear the myth, they learn a lesson about measuring and use it to ascertain the age of a Sugar Maple tree. This exercise is combined with an explanation on photosynthesis and how maple syrup is made. At the end of it all, the students taste test real and fake maple syrup and even get a treat, a maple candy, made after a certain percentage of water is boiled off Sugar Maple sap.

The students will continue their learning with study trips to Ritchey Woods Nature Preserve in the spring, connecting their young minds with local natural resources, while meeting the standards their teachers would have covered in the classroom. Nature First would set the bar for this type of programming at Fishers Parks & Recreation.

Getting Teenagers Involved

The Fishers Parks & Recreation department partners with every first-grade classroom throughout the entire school district, meaning every child who starts out with HSE Schools will have a personal, educational experience in a local park. This program is just one experience Fishers Parks & Recreation has built in partnership with the school district. Older kids have a different programmatic outlet. High school juniors and seniors in Fishers can take advantage of the Fishers Mayor’s Youth Council. This academic, year-long program provides students with insights and hands-on experiences with public-sector careers, while giving them an opportunity to work with senior-level staff and elected officials on policy positions. This experience includes the chance to possibly advise Fishers City Council on issues that are important to the students.

At the beginning of the year, members of the Youth Council tour the Waste Water Treatment Plant and learn about what happens after they flush their toilets or turn on and off their kitchen faucets. The program will eventually take them out for mock training with Fishers Fire & EMS, and during another session, the students will walk through the Hamilton County Jail — getting an up-close look at the criminal justice system.

When Mayor’s Youth Council members aren’t having these up-close experiences, it’s common to see a group of them working with Fishers Mayor Scott Fadness and Deputy Mayor Leah McGrath on various policy concepts. Only time will tell if they’ll be ready to take their big ideas about where their community should go to community leaders and elected officials.

Continuing Education for Adults

Why should education that connects people to the public sector and local parks stop with secondary education? Many adults enjoy the chance to continue learning, and the Fishers City Government Academy provides them with an inside look at how local government operates. It is a free, 10-week-long program that takes residents through a curriculum taught by city of Fishers’ department directors and covers everything from the Fishers police department to planning and zoning and the city court.

The program, which currently runs twice per year, provides city of Fishers staff with the opportunity to tell their departments’ stories and illustrate that passionate people are doing a lot every day to make Fishers a great place to live. And, in turn, taxpayers have direct access to the leaders they expect to make decisions in their best interest. Essentially, the playing field is level, and they get to ask questions — whether those questions are about a new street project or how the city approaches economic development.

Program participants have gone on to volunteer on boards and commissions, serve on the city council, play an immense role in local and regional economic development and generally help the community.

Impact of This Engagement

Success with Nature First, the Fishers Mayor’s Youth Council and Fishers City Government Academy is pushing Fishers Parks & Recreation to be bold about its programming and how it partners with the community. The department stands side by side with teachers in our community, and its experiences tell it to pursue these ventures.

Today, Fishers Parks & Recreation cannot measure the exact value of a high school junior or senior having a better idea of what it means — and what education is required — to run an effective operation that cleans what is eventually drinking water. However, we know that the Mayor’s Youth Council exposes them to career paths they might not have considered — right before they leave the structure of high school. Today, the department cannot measure the exact value of a first grader having a meaningful connection with the local nature preserve, but we know that Fishers Parks & Recreation will have played a significant role in their learning experience. And, today, the department has seen the positive community service City Government Academy participants have gone on to do.

It is no myth that parks and recreation can, and should, play a substantial role in how everyone, from the first graders to the adult taxpayers, in a community learns and how that learning can impact the community.

Daniel Domsic is the Community Engagement & Volunteer Manager for Fishers Parks & Recreation.