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Montgomery County students visit C&O Canal through grant program

By Peggy McEwan | The Gazette,

Even though the Washington region is rich in park resources, it took until Johnny Figueroa of Montgomery Village was 15 years old for him to visit a national park.

He finally got his chance thanks to a new national park grant program aimed at exposing more kids to national parks.

Figueroa, with 112 of his Watkins Mill classmates, visited the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park at Great Falls in Bethesda with his biology class last week, taking part in a stream study and hiking out to the Falls overlook.

The field trip was made possible through a $230,000 grant program, Ticket to Ride, that provides money for transportation and in-park educational programs to students. The Ticket to Ride program is funded by the National Park Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to support the National Park Service, and Walt Disney Co. The C&O Canal National Historical Park, which includes 37 miles in Montgomery County, was named among 35 national park recipients of the grant funding.

Although the park is just 20 miles from his high school, Figueroa and many other Washington kids have never visited a national park because of cost and a lack of transportation.

Elizabeth Reeves, program coordinator with the Alice Ferguson Foundation, said her group works in 13 national parks in the Potomac River watershed. The foundation led the Watkins Mill students in their field study.

“Inner-city or suburban, our kids are not getting outdoors. This [grant program] gives them an opportunity to learn about their local national parks,” she said. “It connects them to the National Park System, fosters stewardship of the parks and the environment [the students] live in.”

The Ticket to Ride money for this year has been allocated to the qualifying national parks, said Marjorie Taft Hall, of the National Parks Foundation, who said she hopes the program will be funded next year, too. The individual parks are responsible for allocating their portion of the funds to local groups looking to visit.

“We ask the park and the school to show engagement with the students through a pre- [visit] activity, to create a base for the park experience, and a post-activity,” Hall said.

Hollie Lynch, education coordinator for the C&O Canal National Historical Park, said she applied for and received the maximum Ticket to Ride grant, $8,000, from the program.

Lynch said Watkins Mill High School was the only Montgomery County school to apply for the grant but that schools from four other Maryland counties and one from the District also applied.

“We wanted to reach as many [students] from different counties, and that’s the way it worked out,” she said. “We are pretty close to having most of [the funds] obligated.”

Watkins Mill biology teacher Lauren Wilkinson learned of the opportunity to access the Ticket to Ride funds while taking a summer school class. She applied for the funds immediately.

“This field trip would have been about $14 per student without the grant,” she said. “The buses, over two days, were close to $2,000.”

She said reducing the cost of the field trip to $4 per student allowed more students to participate and that the grant brought their environmental and science lessons together in one place.

Teachers from the Alice Ferguson Foundation’s Bridging the Watershed program led the students in a stream study, showing them how to find and classify benthic macroinvertebrates, aquatic organisms living on the bottom of a stream.

As their post-visit activity, the students will analyze the data they collect and determine the health of the water.

“It is great. I would recommend it to everybody, it’s a fun place,” Johnny said of his first visit to the national park.

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