As the National Park Service’s “adopted Class of 2016,” a handful of Shaker High School seniors celebrated a graduation of a different kind earlier this year commemorating their participation in a special program called “A Call to Action.” The multi-year program, which launched in 2011, winds down in 2016 – marking the National Park Service’s centennial year.
Through the Call to Action program, a group of students from Shaker Junior and Senior High Schools has forged a partnership with National Park Service at the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Sites in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley region, where they participate in hands-on learning experiences and activities designed to help younger generations develop a deep understanding of park resources and appreciation of this country’s national treasures.
In late March, the Shaker seniors who have been involved with A Call to Action since the eighth grade were recognized for their commitment and their accomplishments over the past several years to help preserve and promote the resources of the neighboring historic sites in Hyde Park, which include President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Estate (Springwood) and Presidential Library and Museum and the Vanderbilt Mansion.
Students respond to A Call to Action
Shaker Junior High School social studies teacher Kathryn Peterson’s enthusiasm for history, and especially for all things Roosevelt, is contagious. She has visited the FDR estate often – taking her classes on at least one, sometimes two, field trips there per year. When approached by Susanne Norris, an environmental education and natural resource specialist at the FDR historic site, about participating in the Call to Action program, Peterson enthusiastically agreed.
“The opportunity for my students to work exclusively with the park service on thematic projects based on goals every year was one that I could not pass up,” she said. “The experience exposed students to a number of different occupations that exist and are provided through the national parks service, jobs they may not know about, or could have an interest in.”
Recognizing the scope and commitment required of this five-year project, Peterson recruited SJHS Library Media Specialist Judi Stott, also a history buff, for help coordinating the program.
For their first project, Shaker students created podcasts for students like themselves who visit the Roosevelt Estate and the Vanderbilt Mansion on school field trips. In all, they researched, wrote and recorded 23 podcasts corresponding to the various trail markers that dot the grounds of the FDR estate. Their goal, Peterson said, was to provide student-friendly podcasts that are interesting, have historical value and are easy to understand, as well. The project required significant research, including many conversations with those most familiar with the estate and its history. The students also hiked the trails many times over to gain firsthand knowledge of the estate and its topography.
The following year, students completed another series of podcasts for the Vanderbilt Mansion site. This offered students an opportunity to get behind-the-scenes access to the mansion, including servants’ quarters, giving them the perspective of the two worlds living under one roof. The podcasts for both national historic sites are available online for visitors to download to their own devices or to listen to via the website. Go to podcasts on National Park Service website
Peterson said an extraordinary opportunity for her students involved an off-site visit to the storage facility where the entire Roosevelt collection is warehoused. This hands-on project allowed students to learn the full artifact preservation process from professional archivists, including how to clean, label and store artifacts, and the system for keeping track of them.
“I would say that was one of the best experiences students have had because we were given the opportunity to see materials most people don’t get to see, and handle items that you normally wouldn’t,” she said. “It’s just been a phenomenal experience overall. I can’t say enough about the program and the opportunities it has provided my students.”
Last year, students researched the historic gardens at the Val-Kill (First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt made this her permanent home after FDR’s death) and Springwood estates. Then with assistance from Stott, Peterson and the SJHS technology education department, students built a hydroponic garden that is housed in the school library. (A hydroponic garden uses mineral nutrient solutions in water, without soil, to grow plants.) Currently, cilantro, lettuces and other vegetables are grown for use by home and careers classes. Read about SJHS hydroponic garden
Other opportunities became available throughout the program, as well. For example, after learning about Mrs. Roosevelt’s passion for human rights, students created projects on the subject that they later presented at the Henry A. Wallace Visitor and Education Center on the grounds of the FDR Presidential Library & Home. Another time, they met African dignitaries who were visiting the historic site and heard the Minister of Education of Ghana speak. While visiting Valkill, they met an elderly woman who had long ago been employed by Mrs. Roosevelt and shared her memories of working with the First Lady. The students also met descendants of the Roosevelt family, including Mrs. Roosevelt’s granddaughter.
For their final project of the program, the seniors created a video tribute to various national parks across the U.S. and to the people responsible for supporting and preserving these historic sites and natural wonders. The video, which of course featured the FDR Estate and Val Kill, was a collaborative effort involving all students at Shaker High School, with assistance from Peterson and Stott. It was screened during the centennial celebration at Hyde Park.
Reflecting on the program and its impact
Shaker students became deeply committed to the program, as senior Rebekeh Depue explained in her reflection on A Call to Action that she shared during the March ceremony:
“We joined this program as 8th graders when it first started up in 2011. We had no idea what would become of our involvement or how important the history of Springwood and Val Kill would become to us. It’s amazing to think back on the connections we have made and the opportunities we were given to explore facets of the Roosevelts. Learning from their home and the grounds has given us a love for this park that will last a lifetime. Each year brought a new experience and theme that allowed us to learn hands-on and to take an active part in research for the corresponding year’s project.” Read student reflection
Peterson said that a few of the seniors involved in the program have decided to pursue careers related to human rights after learning about Mrs. Roosevelt’s work in that area. She also mentioned that at least two seniors referenced Eleanor Roosevelt in their college admissions essays.
“Angelica, another of my students who is graduating this year, said that everything she learned about Mrs. Roosevelt’s work in human rights has really helped shape her decision to major in psychology and further study human rights in college,” said Peterson.
Peterson added that another student who is interested in a law enforcement career was able to connect with a park ranger from the National Parks Service whose job involves police work.
SJHS Hall Principal Jan Zadoorian accompanied the group to Hyde Park for the first time in March and observed what he called a truly authentic learning experience.
“This program has been a multi-year commitment and what I saw from students was excitement about learning, pride in what they have accomplished, a real passion for the national parks and Hyde Park, itself,” he said. “Many talked on the bus ride down and while we were there about how often they have visited in the summer with family and friends on their own, outside of their school commitment. So this goes beyond a field trip or visit that is lost or forgotten once it’s over – it’s a real passion for students.”
Hoping to repeat history
As the National Park Service marks its centennial, it looks toward the future with an enduring goal to prepare younger generations for a second century of stewardship and engagement in the park system.
Peterson and her students want to help meet that goal by continuing the relationship with the National Parks Service at the FDR Estate next year. Plans are underway for a project this fall when students will participate in a re-enactment of the Torchlight Parade of FDR’s 1940 presidential campaign. These parades occurred during the election years throughout FDR’s presidency where people would march through town to the front door of the Roosevelt home. He and Eleanor along with their Scottish terrier Fala would greet the crowd, and President Roosevelt would then address them.
“During presidential elections years, the Park Service hosts a reenactment representing one of the four times President Roosevelt was elected,” Peterson explained. “We have been researching election campaign materials for 1940 and are recreating them for this year’s Torchlight Parade in October.”
Peterson and Stott thank the North Colonie School District administration for its support of the program and Park Ranger Norris and the many other NPS staff for this unique and inspiring opportunity to learn and live history.
“It’s just been an extremely positive experience for us and for the historic site staff. It’s exciting to know that they would want to continue working with us and we definitely want to keep working with them,” Peterson said. “If we create more history lovers in the process – that would be great, too.”