A Jamaica Bay environmental education program — one of the first of its kind in the country, and the only one bringing New York City’s classrooms in contact with marine and other kinds of wildlife — may soon be lost to a recent round of budget cuts.
Housed in a three-story brick building near the runway at Floyd Bennett Field, the Gateway Environmental Study Center at the Gateway National Recreation Area in Rockaway, costs the city about $75,000 each year in rent, utilities, supplies and salary for its one teacher. The National Parks Service, which runs the recreation area, supports the program by sharing staff resources and offering camping space for classes.
In mid-December, city Department of Education officials sent a note to the Parks Service explaining that the city can no longer pay the program’s rent.
Without continued funding from the city, however, Parks Service officials do not know how the program can continue. “No one’s come out and said yea or nay,” said Rita Mullally, the chief of Interpretation and Education for Gateway. Her agency has asked the city to spare the study center. “We’re waiting to hear from the Board to see what to do, but I don’t think the Parks Service can financially take it over.”
Founded in 1976 as a city-federal collaboration, the study center has served as a national model for urban environmental education. “This kind of set the stage for other national parks to be working with their schools,” said Mullally.
The study center has allowed thousands of students and teachers — an estimated 1,800 since October — to learn about local marine and wildlife through beachcombing expeditions, tours through the grasslands, and classes on the red-tailed hawk, which rangers say have been nesting on the Marine Parkway and Bay Bridges. One of the program’s biggest attractions, a camping program, hosts as many as 60 classes each year on overnight trips on park land.
Ending the program would diminish an already-scant offering of free environmental education available to city schoolchildren, particularly in national parks. “In most cases, there’s a fee for them,” said Denise Brown, the center’s on-site Department of Ed teacher.
City Councilmember Joseph Addabbo has appealed to the Department of Education to keep the program. While noting that the program is “worth every penny,” he was pragmatic. “The chancellor is working with a limited amount of resources,” said Addabbo. “Living in a realistic world, we have to understand that the city is on tough financial times.”