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50-year old environmental learning center faces crippling budget cuts

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Shortly after 10 a.m., the first Cragin Elementary School bus arrives with about 30 fourth graders, euphoric to be out of the classroom to roam the foothills of the Tucson mountains. For some it’s the first Cooper Center and Sonoran Desert experience.

Adrienne Pallante is there to accompany her daughter’s group, but memories of her own Cooper dwellings from a few decades ago are vivid—the hikes, the overnight s’mores and, most importantly, the absorbed knowledge and appreciation for the Sonoran Desert and its creatures. “The experience stuck with me … how we need to protect, not only the desert, but our parks, our oceans, our animals, protect them from human beings and let them evolve the way they are supposed to,” she says. Pallante’s 10-year-old daughter Genesa isn’t too far ahead.

This Monday morning’s activity is to scavenge for plants based on their adaption to the shortage of water. The kids split up into smaller groups, with orange flags at hand to mark their findings amidst a sea of saguaros, chollas, nopalitos and other species. Each field trip has a different focus, depending on what the visiting teachers are interested in exposing their students to—archaeology, bird and insect watching, and even astronomy if you do the overnight deal at Cooper.

“We get to climb up the mountain and I like that we get to play with things,” says Ella. This is her second time at Cooper. She was merely a kindergartener on her first round. This is common at Cooper—witnessing students return multiple times.

The teachings transfer back to the classroom and give kids a broader perspective for what they’re learning. Also, for a lot of elementary children in the Tucson Unified School District—a district with a variety of socio-economic backgrounds—the Cooper field trip is one of the rare occasions for true outdoors exploration.

(Cooper Center Director Colin Waite says they see about 4,000 students per school year, and most of them come from TUSD.)

It opens them up to questions like, “We are supposed to be conserving water, why are we wasting it on golf courses? They are thinking about their normal surroundings in a different way because they have been here and then they share those things with their parents and others,” says Kay Thill, a Cragin fourth grade teacher. She’s retiring this year, and through her stay in TUSD, she explored Cooper at least nine times.

It saddens Pallante, Thill and other supporters to hear the more than 50-year-old environmental learning center—located roughly 15 minutes west of downtown Tucson—is facing the threat of a crippling budget. The issues have left the center to do some grassroots fundraising to maintain its programs—something they hadn’t had to rely on much in the past.

TUSD owns the land where it stands, and Waite says they are good on that end, at least for now (the TUSD-UA partnership began about seven years ago). But the University of Arizona’s College of Education streams Cooper money for its operations budget—the hiring and maintenance of staff—and that revenue depends on how many people enroll in the college.

“There is lower enrollment in the College of Education, probably tied to the overall climate of education both nationally and in our state. There are fewer students coming into our program and that leads to having less funding for a place like Cooper,” says Waite, who’s been at the center for 12 years. When a student enrolls in the elementary education program, for instance, the fees that come from that are some of Cooper’s life support systems.

With this fundraising campaign—launched about a month ago—the goal is to become self-sufficient so they no longer have to rely on these entities, which constantly have to absorb state budget cuts.

The community support is already there. When Cooper has had problems in the past, teachers, parents and students don’t think twice about stepping up. Waite hopes to reach out to the “Cooper Center alumni,” the approximately 130,000 Southern Arizonans who’ve been exposed to the center’s educational riches.

“I can go anywhere in town and say, ‘Camp Cooper,’ and someone will say, ‘I did it 20 years ago and I have done it with my child, my grandchild,’” he says. “We are trying to reconnect with them.”

He turns to Pallante, “We’ll make it, because of people like you.” “Even with all the challenges that the field of education faces, teachers have always valued us,” he says. “We have always had a full schedule and a waiting list.”

The fundraiser is doing well thus far—the center recently got a $40,000 grant from the Marshall Foundation and three weeks into the process, they had already raised about $9,000. In less than a month, about $50,000 of the between $100-120,000 they need is in the bag for security. With the Marshall award, Cooper was able to hire a much-needed staff person.

“This is a universal language…any student from any background can have this shared experienced and value it,” Waite says. “This needs to happen in education, you can’t just be in a classroom all the time, you need different types of learning for different learners. They are going to become the adults saving energy and water, the ones who will want to protect the natural places surrounding the city.”

More by María Inés Taracena

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