The third-graders from Catawba Trail Elementary School were incredibly well-prepared for their field trip to Congaree National Park — except for one thing.
They were confused about what to call their leader.
Vikki Pasco is their science teacher, but on Friday she wore the classic flat hat, neat uniform and name tag of a park ranger. She’s one of two Richland 2 teachers selected for the National Park Service’s teacher-ranger-teacher program, in which teachers go through ranger training in the summer and come back to the park the following year for field trips with a new depth of knowledge, and new authority.
“For today, and today only, you can call me Ranger Vikki,” Pasco told the children as they began their trek on the park’s boardwalk. “When we’re back at school, you call me Mrs. Pasco.”
Throughout the 2 1/2 hours on the boardwalk, the kids called out to Mrs. Pasco or Ranger Pasco or Ranger Vikki — but the key was they wanted to ask her questions or tell her about discoveries. They desperately wanted to see but not touch “leaves of three, let it be” poison ivy. They delighted in forming a human chain around a massive bald cypress trunk. And they thrilled in a swooping flyover by a barred owl.
“I’m seeing a lot of stuff I’ve never seen before,” said Omarian Jusina, one of the lucky few who spotted a pileated woodpecker before it flew deeper into the park’s thick bottomland forest.
“This makes me feel like I’m so puny,” said Maddox Mock as he looked up from the base of the former national champion loblolly pine.
When Pasco got brief breaks from explaining things, she couldn’t stop smiling. As part of the teacher-ranger-teacher program, she conducts the standard park nature tours from time to time when school isn’t in session. “I’ve done school groups, but I’ve never had a school group this excited,” she said Friday. “We’ve been talking about this for two weeks, and it did make a difference.”
The students couldn’t wait to answer questions about the difference between bluffs and flood plains. They jostled to be the ones walking closest to Pasco so they could ask questions about trees or spider webs. They braced on Pasco’s outstretched arm while they looked up inside a hollow tree.
The teacher-ranger-teacher program “gives me a way to connect with the kids and get them outdoors,” Pasco said. If she wasn’t in the program, “I would still teach this at school, but it wouldn’t have the same connection.”
The program began at a park in Colorado in 2003 and spread nationwide in 2007. Pasco and Karen Brown, a pre-K teacher at Conder Elementary, are in the second year in the program at Congaree National Park. Teachers selected for the program get a stipend “that hardly covers the gas to get out here,” Pasco said.
For the teachers, the stipend isn’t nearly as important as the chance to train and work in a national park.
“There are people who have doctorates who quit their jobs and work as seasonal rangers just so they can have a chance to be hired at a national park,” Pasco said.
She gets the chance to don her park ranger uniform during the summer and school breaks. She even wore it to school for the first week of school and on career day.
In addition to class field trips, Pasco last year led students, parents and teachers on a canoe trip in the park and organized a special owl prowl hike for kindergarten students. Her students also are raising trout to be released into the Saluda River as part of a S.C. Department of Natural Resources program.
She’s that teacher who always seems to be having fun. And seldom has she, or her students, had more fun than Friday during the 2 1/2 mile walk on the park boardwalk.
“I think there are going to be some kids sleeping on the bus on the way back to school,” Pasco said.