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Two educators are using their local state park to teach environmental conservation

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  • A park ranger and teacher went from being high school classmates to collaborating as colleagues in their hometown of Gatesville, North Carolina. Read more about how a state park is bringing them, and students, together.
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For more than 20 years, Jeffrey Turner has woken up in the morning, put on his uniform, and headed down the road to a place he grew up treasuring – Merchants Millpond State Park. Outfitted in dark green pants, a gray shirt, and a gold-plated badge, he assumes his post at the park in Gates County, a rural county in the far northeast corner of the state. 

Turner has spent nearly his entire career as a park ranger, making it his mission to give back to his community and foster an appreciation for the outdoors. 

Several miles west of the park sits Gatesville Elementary School, where one of Turner’s former classmates, and now colleagues, works. Jessica Harrell is a third grade teacher at the school and graduated high school alongside Ranger Turner. Today, she teaches reading and social studies to many students, including one of Turner’s kids. 

Turner and Harrell are both passionate about experiential education and the environment. They collaborate through interpretive education programs at the state park and through site visits to the elementary school.

Through all of their collaborations, they hope to cultivate an interest in and appreciation of nature, and show the possibility of making a meaningful life in a rural community.

The heart of Gates County

Like other North Carolina public schools, Harrell’s grade has social studies standards to meet. Her curriculum includes studying the history of Gates County, and as it turns out, the state park is a big part of it. This makes a field trip to the millpond an obvious choice. 

“We want to make sure that when we go on field trips, that it is highly aligned to what we’re studying,” Harrell said.

Merchants Millpond State Park spans 3,520 acres centered around a 190-year-old millpond and swamp. The 760 acres of millpond is the park’s main draw, but the ecosystem is also filled with a diverse range of wildlife and plant species, including bears and alligators. There are trails lined with old growth cypress trees for hiking, an outdoor classroom, and a visitor’s center. 

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the park.

“A lot of times they don’t realize what they have in their backyard until they go out and see it,” said Turner.

Ranger Turner has taught dozens of education programs across all four seasons. Turner shared that it’s not uncommon for a ranger to do upwards of 60 education programs a year.

For Harrell’s class, he did a history program focused on the park and its place in the history of Gates County, as well as the many species that live in the unique ecosystem. The students went on a hike and toured the millpond, where Turner pointed out markers of history and different species to the class. Throughout the lesson, Turner incorporated the importance of conservation and land stewardship.

“It’s not just the education part of it. It is, like (Turner) said, being a steward of the land and taking care of this place, realizing that it’s a precious biome,” said Harrell. “For some of them, it’s their first experience being close to a body of water, their first experience seeing a snake and not being scared of it.”

S’mores at school

How do a group of third grade students end up making s’mores at school? The answer, in this case, is a wildfire safety lesson with Ranger Turner.

The lesson started in the classroom, where Harrell read a book about wildfires to the class and showed the students a video featuring Park Superintendent Steve Rogers and Ranger Turner describing wildfire management and demonstrating a controlled burn.

Then, Ranger Turner came to the elementary school and demonstrated a micro example of a controlled burn for the students. Afterwards, the students gathered around the fire and roasted s’mores.

“Wildlife has a way of connecting people,” Turner said. “Understanding what’s outside your door gives a greater appreciation and therefore, not just a better understanding, but a want to protect what you have.”

Homegrown colleagues

“I was the girl that thought that I would never want to become a teacher and stay in the county forever, but I actually never moved away,” Harrell said.

She may not have wanted to stay in Gates County at first, but since her high school years, she has grown to love her local community, small town and all. Trips to the millpond and exploring the park with her own children were a big part of Harrell’s change of heart. Now, she’s proud of where she lives and the place she calls home.

Jessica Harrell teaching in her Gatesville Elementary School classroom. Photo courtesy of Jessica Harrell

Ranger Turner also has varied memories of his high school years. Some include classes with Harrell, but many involve exploring the diverse ecosystem of the millpond. After all of this time, he is grateful they are still collaborating.

“We went to school together and now we work together,” Turner said. “We are still working for that same goal of appreciation and learning.”

Both Turner and Harrell hope the beauty of the millpond inspires their students and opens their minds to the possibilities of their lives ahead, maybe even the possibility of staying and contributing to their beloved rural home.

“We may not have very much, but we have a state park and that’s something for us to be proud of,” said Harrell. “Also, it’s an opportunity for kids to dream about what their future could be.”

Alli Lindenberg

Alli Lindenberg is an executive fellow for EducationNC.