I take issue with the title of the Star Tribune’s Oct. 18 editorial “Good news on Warner center’s fate.” The fate — that the Warner Nature Center west of Marine on St. Croix will halt operations at the end of the year but that a new vision will unfold — was certainly not good news to the teachers and students who were scheduled to go there for programs.
A group of concerned Warner Nature Center volunteers asked teachers who have taken students to Warner to describe some of the impacts and challenges the closing at the end of the year would have on their school and students (www.welovewarner.org). One teacher stated, “We are scrambling to decide how we will cover the state science standards that Warner covered for us.” Another teacher commented, “Our scheduled field trip this year has been canceled. It will impact over 200 of our 4th grade students.”
In the editorial, Greg McNeely, whose family controls the fund that owns the property, states that a new center “may take two years or more to develop and reopen.” That means that for the next two years or more, the fourth-graders at this school, along with thousands of other students, will miss out on all that Warner has to offer. Reopening the nature center in two years will not help them.
Some may say that the schools can find other nature centers to go to. The Twin Cities area does indeed have many excellent nature centers. However, as one teacher stated, “The programs offered at Warner are not available in our area. It will be a great loss to our students to not benefit from the knowledge and hands-on experiences that Warner offered.”
Additionally, taking students to another nature center may be cost-prohibitive, as one teacher explained, “Warner Nature Center is close to our district, so the cost of getting to Warner is within our very tight budget. The cost of attending a different nature center could make this kind of field trip unattainable for our students.” Thanks to the past generosity of the Manitou Fund, students have been able to attend Warner Nature Center for little or no cost. For one school, “The fact that Warner was free for our students was amazing and gave us the budget to have two or two and a half field trips. Our students this year will entirely miss out on the outdoor natural learning that Warner provided.” The funding has been particularly important for schools with high populations of low-income students, as one teacher stated: “Our school population is diverse and has a lot of low-income families which means our students don’t get opportunities to experience something like this.”
The staff at Warner Nature Center makes it a very special place. When asked how satisfied they were with their experience with Warner Nature Center, one teacher summed it up by saying: “Extremely satisfied! Warner Nature Center far and above exceeded any expectations! It is a field trip like no other. It was by far, the best field trip destination. The staff and the volunteers are AMAZING. Every little detail has been thought through.” Another teacher added: “It had a perfect balance of teaching, exploring and hands-on learning for our students. The teachers and volunteers were wonderful and so loving to all students!”
The editorial correctly states that “change can be wrenching.” However, it needn’t be that way. There are many examples of schools continuing to teach students while additions or updates are being made to their school buildings, or while new schools are being built. Most organizations make changes through a thorough process of strategic planning that includes looking at strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, then keeps the strengths and makes changes as necessary. There are many strengths in the current programs and staff, as evidenced by the teachers who described them as “knowledgeable,” “engaging,” “informative,” “awesome,” “rewarding,” “wonderful,” “magical,” “fun,” “second to none” and much more (see www.welovewarner.org for additional comments).
It’s not just, as stated in the editorial, a matter of bad communication between the Manitou Fund and those who make Warner what it is. The problem is the way in which this “interruption” is being handled. It’s not too late to do a complete strategic plan and keep all that’s great about Warner Nature Center and minimize the adverse effects on schools and students.
Mark Lex, of Scandia, is a retired teacher and current volunteer at Warner Nature Center.