Biscayne Park offers learning opportunities

HOMESTEAD, Fla.— The Dante Fascell Visitor Center at Biscayne National Park is a world apart from the commotion and congestion of Miami-Dade County.

Just a half hour from the park, horrific traffic and screaming matches among motorists are commonplace in Kendall, but standing on the boardwalk surrounding the visitor’s center, tasting the saltiness on one’s lips, and looking out to the point where Biscayne Bay engulfs the sky, these troubles are forgotten.

The sounds of the wind and of children’s voices were everywhere.

The Dante Fascell Visitor Center at Homestead houses exhibits, a theater, and the educational department’s classroom facilities (Staff photo).

Ginger Johnson, seasonal bilingual education coordinator and park ranger for Biscayne National Park, met me in the Visitor Center holding mannequin hands.

“Excuse me,” she said, transferring both of the hands into her left hand. She had just finished putting together and dressing a male mannequin in a yellow hat and coat.

She and her fellow park rangers use the mannequin to teach children about fire safety.

“I’m sorry. I’ll be with you in a moment,” Johnson said and proceeded to help another ranger to pull several black trunks from the Visitor Center down a wooden ramp.

Looking around, it is clear Biscayne National Park’s educational department has its hands full—literally. Hundreds of children, about 300 in all, with their school and group leaders were circling the Visitor Center in search of garbage.

Part of the park’s clean-up volunteers, the children hunted for bits of trash with the promise of being rewarded with a free lunch, a movie about hurricanes and a visit from “Snuggle Bear.”

Considering there are only three people in the education department, sometimes they are required to where many hats. As a seasonal employee, Johnson is involved in every aspect and activity the department hosts and organizes, from school camping trips to “Family Fun Fests” which take place every first Sunday of the month.

A group of children perused the children’s book section near the reception counter, specifically The Underwater Alphabet. While Park Ranger Susan E. Paishan attended the reception desk, she explained to a freckled, fourth-grade boy that sharks do not have bones.

“You see what your nose is made out of,” Paishan said touching her own nose. “Well, that’s what sharks are made of completely. Cartilage. That’s why, when they die, you can’t find many traces of them except their teeth. Or a jaw like the one we have in the window.”

The boy, wide-eyed, stared at the pointy-toothed jaw in the window as some of his fellow volunteers headed for the ecosystem exhibit.

Johnson, dressed in a brown park ranger uniform and cap, her long, blond braids hanging on shoulders, returned to the Visitor Center with several brown boxes.

“Today, I am having some Cub Scouts come out. They are earning their “Water and Soil Conservation” badges. We are going to talk about erosion; we’re going to discuss the mangrove shoreline, the sea grass beds, the islands, the keys and the coral reef beds, how they all play in erosion,” Johnson said.

Johnson, a graduate of Point Loma Nazarene College in history and Spanish, said Biscayne models its educational activities after the National Parks Service “Parks as a Classroom” project, which helps local school groups to provide “hands-on experiences while incorporating curriculum based activities.”

Instead of pointing to a cardboard picture depicting erosion, teachers can bring students to the park to see and feel erosion as it occurs in an experiment. On the day they attend, school groups, guided by a park ranger, are given a formal introduction in the Visitor Center theater.

Johnson is usually on hand with her “Bucket-O-Biscayne,” which contains a mangrove pot, a piece of coral, a butterfly, and a sponge, each representing the Biscayne’s four ecosystems.

Johnson said one of the more exciting programs the park offers is a three-day camping excursion on Elliot Key, seven miles east of the mainland, for fifth and sixth graders. The group size is small, 15 to 25 students including teachers and chaperons. Teachers choose students for the trip according to their responsibility and behavior levels.

Rangers take the time to visit the schools prior to the trip to meet with the students, parents and chaperones, answer their questions and prep for the trip, Johnson said.

On the first day, students are given an introduction and then, life jackets in place, are boat lifted to Elliot Key, which is fully equipped with picnic tables, barbeque grills, campfire circles and a classroom. There is also a ranger residence and VHF radio onsite for added safety.

“Often it is their first time camping. It is a great opportunity for them to learn teamwork. They set up their tents with our instruction. They learn to appreciate shelter and work together to get it done,” Johnson said.

Students participate in shoreline and hammock hikes and treated to educational games to instruct them about how animals camouflage and adapt, Johnson said.

“Part of the reward of going through this is that a lot of times you have kids who are scared, but, some of the tough things in life are the ones that make you stronger. It is amazing to see the difference in some kids who are kind of sheepish or meek and to see them go through the camp and afterwards, the confidence that they build is extraordinary. To see them say, ‘Yeah, I can do it.’ They learn to trust those around them and come out of their shells. That is an important part,” Johnson said.

Stella Summers, facilitator and teacher of gifted children for Banyan Elementary School in Miami, said Biscayne’s school camping excursions have provided her students with invaluable experiences. Summers, along with other coworkers from Banyan, have participated in school trips for four years.

Banyan fifth-graders from the school Horizons Center for gifted students take the trip and are treated to a new world of science, history and ecology lessons. Teachers and chaperones, Summers said, work with and without rangers to oversee the campers and their activities.

“[We use the park] as a cultural resource. We’ve had special presenters lecture students on Miami history such as the Miami Circle and the shipwrecks that occurred around Biscayne Bay,” Summers said.

“For some students, this is their first time away from home, away from their mother, and they’re a little scared. At the end of the year, the experience the children write as their ‘most memorable’ experience is this one. It’s at the top of the list,” Summers said.

Summers said students are not the only ones returning changed from the trip. “One of our chaperones was hesitant to let her daughter go camping. They ended up loving it so much they have been camping all over Florida as a family. [The experience] actually changed their family.”

At the Dante Fascell Visitor Center, the education department also offers a small movie theater and classrooms for students. Biscayne is currently finishing a new classroom, which will be equipped with I-Mac computers and digital cameras, Johnson said. The room should be completed in May and is currently being used by the department for their “Family Fun Fest” activities.

The students participating in the clean-up activity lined up to get there lunch (hot dogs, hamburger, baked beans and soda) as Johnson walked toward the theater and began helping another ranger who was preparing the theater for the students.

Outside, a group of children sat on the concrete fence in front of the boardwalk, tired from their day of volunteering, munching on baked beans and looking out at the part wear Biscayne Bay engulfs the sky.

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