Laurel Brannick, who was recently named the VINP’s first ever educational specialist, is helping establish the strong bond between the park and the community envisioned by V.I. National Park Superintendent Mark Hardgrove.
Brannick, a former interpretive ranger, works full time with teachers to develop curriculum-based programs in the park.
“We’ve always done field trips with the schoolkids, but we wanted to dedicate one position to work full time,” said Brannick. “I’ve already started doing lots of different things, like working with a biology teacher at Gifft Hill School who’s doing a unit on birds.”
The VINP education specialist serves as another resource to teachers and schoolchildren, she explained.
“The GHS teacher told her kids, ‘Laurel’s like another resource, so besides having books and computers, she’ll come in to show you slides and take you bird watching,’” said Brannick.
With more than half the island designated as national park, children have an excellent resource to learn first-hand about their surrounding environment, Brannick explained.
“The park is a big part of the community, and there’s not a lot of specific information on native trees and birds in the books they have in school,” she said. “So, we’ll have the kids visit the Cinnamon Bay Archaeology Lab, go to Annaberg, and learn all kinds of stuff about natural and cultural resources. It’s great that they can get out and see their environment and get more current, accurate information.”
Brannick hopes to use her partnership with local schools to get kids interested in their surroundings by teaching them about wildlife, then taking a field trip to experience it first-hand, and having a follow-up assignment on the subject.
“If the information is given to the kids before, during and after the trip, that’s the ideal situation,” said Brannick. “A couple weeks ago I did coastweeks with Mary Burks’ Guy Benjamin School fourth grade class, and I went ahead of time and gave a presentation on marine debris and how it’s bad for animals. Then we did the cleanup, and afterwards she had her students write a poem; it really helped them learn.”
The VINP education specialist was thrilled when she recently got the attention and interest of ninth graders at Julius E. Sprauve School with a presentation on sea turtles, she explained.
“At first they didn’t seem interested, but once they saw the slides and I told them about the different kinds of turtles in the V.I., they actually paid attention,” said Brannick. “They started saying which turtles they’ve seen and asking questions. They weren’t falling asleep, so it was nice.”
Brannick’s position is extremely important to the community, explained VINP Superintendent Hardgrove.
“This is perhaps the most important position the National Park Service can provide to our local community,” said Hardgrove. “It will allow us to develop curriculum-based educational programs such as historic preservation, identification of native plants and animals and the importance of their habitats for their survival, all using the national park as an outdoor classroom. We can plant the seed early on in the lives of our children.”
Developing the relationship between the VINP and local schools is still in the beginning stages and has room for improvement. Hardgrove hopes to partner with the V.I. Department of Education to make the process of bringing children out of the classroom less bureaucratic, he explained.
“We need to get involved and make sure we have the tools in place so the teachers don’t have to go through so much to make just one visit to the park,” said Hardgrove. “Hopefully we can get to a point where all they’ll need is parental consent, and transportation can be worked out with the V.I. government. Once an education commissioner is appointed, I’ll be contacting them to discuss a potential agreement.”
Teachers interested in inviting Brannick to work with their classes should email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.