GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - Education ranger Briana Board said she loves those "ah-ha" moments which occur whenever she's leading a hike or an activity for local elementary students in Colorado National Monument.
"It's especially gratifying when kids say 'I get it now. I've been studying this in school,'" she said.
With little school funding for field trips, Colorado National Monument staff is constantly seeking grant money to cover transportation costs so School District 51 children can visit the park.
"We want to eliminate barriers that prevent students from coming to Colorado National Monument," said Michelle Wheatley, chief of visitor services and education. "We're trying to do our part to make the monument accessible to all.
"We believe this is the greatest outdoor classroom in the valley."
The monument was one of several parks nationwide to benefit from a new National Park Foundation program called "Ticket to Ride," which makes field trips to national parks possible for local schoolchildren. The foundation recently awarded the monument $9,000 in transportation funding.
"We were fortunate. It was a competitive process," Wheatley said.
Board and fellow education ranger Annie Runde, retired teacher Teri Lindauer, and other park rangers teach kids about the different rock formations, how erosion and flash floods shape canyons, and the human history of the area. They learn about desert wildlife. Hikes and activity stations provide hands-on learning of subjects that satisfy science, history and social studies requirements.
Pomona fourth-grade teacher Judy Golden has accompanied her students several times on trips to the park.
"The monument rangers are truly amazing," Golden said. "They actually (check) the Colorado standards for the grade level and make sure they cover the information kids need to know."
In 2009 and 2010, Golden's fourth grade classes experienced a two-day trip that involved a hike to the top of Dinosaur Hill, a camp-out at Saddlehorn Campground, and a hike the following day through lower Monument Canyon to Independence Rock.
For the past two years, the Junior Service League of Grand Junction has been a major supporter of field trips to the monument by giving more than $6,000 for transportation. The Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education has also provided transportation funding.
The "Ticket to Ride" program will allow more than 2,500 Mesa County students and teachers to attend ranger-guided, standards-based field trips in the spring and fall of 2012.
Shawn Hays, who teaches second and third grades at Orchard Avenue Elementary, started bringing her students to the monument on her own before there was funding and before there was a student education program. She said she was thankful when Wheatley formed an education program there about eight years ago.
Hays brings her students to the monument at least twice a year. For the majority, it's their first time visiting the monument.
"(The rangers) are like master teachers for children in an outdoor environment," Hays said. "I can't say enough about them.
"What I find is once they've gone, the kids bring their families back. Sometimes it's the first time for parents."
Twenty-three school groups received transportation scholarships for field trips in April and May.
District 51 school teachers will be able to apply again in August for transportation money for field trips in September through early November. Scholarships will be advertised through the school district and at www.nps.gov/colm/forteachers. Teachers can also e-mail COLM_Education@nps.gov to be notified directly of scholarship opportunities.
To book a field trip at Colorado National Monument, contact education rangers at 970-858-3617, ext. 367. All ranger-guided programs are free.