I don’t know how it is at your site, but here at Land Between the Lakes, our public events and our school programs operate very differently. With our public events, many different partners often get involved. For example, at our annual Hummingbird Festival at the Woodlands Nature Station, groups such as a local beekeeping association, a master gardeners club, a nearby national wildlife refuge, the local university agricultural extension office, and others all get involved and participate in the event. These various partners bring resources, support, and experience that we can not provide on our own, and they gain a venue with a large audience to promote their causes and their services. Many of our public events work in this fashion.
However, with school groups, it’s a different story. We tend to manage our school programs fairly single-handedly with our own staff. There have been a few exceptions, but for the large majority of cases this is how our school programs typically have run.
A few years ago, our living history farm, the Homeplace, started a community partnership with the local school system that has been an amazing experiment to watch develop. I wanted to share this story because I find it to be an inspiring and impressive example of how community involvement can bring a whole new type of meaningfulness to a program.
The story begins about 5 years ago. At that time, one of the interpreters from the Homeplace had been participating as a guest presenter in an annual event at the local elementary school, a special day for kindergarteners called Pumpkin Patch Day. She noticed that while it was a great event, the grounds were a bit small, and the topography was hilly and a bit awkward for some of the activities. So, she decided to suggest to the event coordinator the idea of possibly holding the event at the Homeplace in the future. And the event coordinator thought the suggestion sounded interesting.
The following year, in 2014, they decided to try this out. And they decided to offer the event on two different days: one for each of the elementary schools in the school system. Unlike typical school programs, this wasn’t simply a program that our staff was planning on their own and inviting schools to attend. Rather, the school system was playing an integral role in planning the program, and working with our staff to make it work well at our site. Well, it turned out to be a huge success! In fact, both our staff and the school system liked it so much that they have expanded on this structure so that now we offer similar programs like the Pumpkin Patch Days for about 5 different grade levels, each its own grade-level-appropriate topic.
What is so unique about these programs, and different from our traditional school programs, is how involved the whole community becomes. At the Pumpkin Patch Days, about 25 high school students who are members of the high school leadership club help lead the groups of kindergarteners, and some of them even run some of the activities. For example, several students led an activity for the younger kids where they learned the difference between a fruit and a vegetable. The local Kiwanis Club donates snacks for all the kids. Their members also lead an activity in which one of them does storytelling in the character of Johnny Appleseed, and the kids learn about this legend. Teachers from the school system plan most of the logistics of the day, as well as provide the pumpkins for the pumpkin patch. And our staff lead several activities in which the kids learn about their agricultural heritage, such as learning where wool comes from by getting to meet our sheep, touch real wool, and watch it get spun into yarn.
Because the program has been set up as a community event, tons of parents attend. You can see the parents both happy to see the little kids having such a great day, as well as being proud of the high school students for taking on such a leadership role. As an observer of the program, it was so inspiring to see how so many members of the community came together at our site and enjoyed an experience that both connected them to their local heritage as well as brought them together as a community.
And now that this model has expanded to multiple grade levels, this kind of program is taking place numerous times throughout the year at the Homeplace. It feels really good to see that our site and our interpreters can offer something that the community really wants and enjoys.
And by the way, did I mention that it’s not that hard either? Because the community is so invested in it, many other people besides just our staff take on a lot of the planning work, supply many of the materials, and even lead many of the activities!
Now, maybe we’re behind the times here at Land Between the Lakes and many of your sites have been working with this kind of community partnership model for some of your school programs for years. I don’t know. If so, good for you! But it’s something that has recently taken root here, and it seems to be a really great thing, and I thought I would share the experience. Maybe it will give you a different way to look at your school programs and some possible opportunities for the future.
Executive Director, Friends of Land Between the Lakes