Thomas Wolfe said You Can’t Go Home Again, or at least the title of his 1940 novel said as much.
Fossil Rim Director of Education Jennifer Arledge would beg to differ. After getting her professional career going at the wildlife center in the mid-90s, Arledge has returned to lead the education department into the future.
“I’m still really good friends with Meg Bommarito, who was an intern during my first time working at Fossil Rim,” Arledge said. “She texted me to tell me that the Fossil Rim Director of Education position was available. It was perfect timing, and I knew I could work for (Executive Director) Kelley (Snodgrass) because he is an experienced, professional leader who only wants the best for Fossil Rim. As a bonus, I’m close to my family again.
“This place started me on my career path, so I want to give back to Fossil Rim through the experience I’ve gained in environmental education. I’m really excited about it.”
The Houston native grew up in San Angelo. She graduated from the University of Texas, majoring in anthropology and minoring in education.
“In college, I decided I really wanted to work with children and animals,” Arledge said. “Anthropology gave me a background on different cultures, and I also studied primatology. I wanted to work at a zoo or other animal facility. After college while living in Dallas, I saw a newspaper ad for a naturalist, which drew my interest.
“It turned out to be for ‘Safari Camp naturalist’ at Fossil Rim. Although I wasn’t offered the naturalist position, I was hired as the seasonal conservation camp coordinator.
“Later, they made me a full-time staff member. I owe Fossil Rim for introducing me to environmental education and helping me discover what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”
At Fossil Rim from 1994-96, Arledge was conservation camp coordinator and then education coordinator. She went on to work at Mesker Park Zoo (Indiana), Happy Hollow Park & Zoo (California), Chehaw Park (Georgia), and was most recently the Tulsa Zoo Director of Education.
“I also heard from (Fossil Rim Director of Animal Care) Adam (Eyres) about this position,” she said. “Like Kelley, I knew Adam when I was here the first time, plus he was on the accreditation team twice when I was at Tulsa Zoo. It felt good to know he thought I could benefit the Fossil Rim Education Department.
“I had a great time here in the 90s. A lot has changed around here since then, but my excitement to be here has not.”
Arledge was asked about some of the most notable changes in the past quarter-century.
“The upgrades in and around Wolf Ridge Nature Camp are great,” she said of the park’s education area. “The new Activity Center is amazing; it used to be a horse barn. The (Wolf Ridge) Bunkhouses are all retrofitted and now have air conditioning.
“I appreciate how they changed with the times, but stayed true to the heart of Fossil Rim’s mission. The paved (Gosdin Scenic Drive) is outstanding.
“There is enough of the old to make longtime visitors, and me, feel comfortable, and the organization has remained a leader in conservation. Meanwhile, needed changes have been made to ensure Fossil Rim is always growing.”
There are a couple of newer animal species Arledge noted upon her return.
“I was especially excited to see that (mountain) bongo have been added here, as well as black-footed cats,” she said. “I’ve only been around black-footed cats at one other institution. This is the place where I fell in love with hoofstock. When I first got here, I couldn’t tell them apart, but then you learn about all of their specific characteristics and become excited about sharing that knowledge with the public.”
Arledge is joined in the education department by Assistant Director of Education James Morgan, Homeschool Coordinator Mark Phillips, Programs Coordinator Cassidy McDonald, and Camp Manager Andrew Bullard.
“The staff I inherited has definitely worked hard and been an asset to the department,” Arledge said. “They are such a wonderful team devoted to teaching people about the environment. I appreciate how they help each other out, come up with new ideas, and are willing to come in any day that they are needed.
“That’s dedication, and I’m very fortunate to have them. We are also planning to grow our team by adding new staff members.”
Perhaps the first new staff member will be a volunteer coordinator.
“While people can volunteer for many departments, the volunteer program is a branch of the education department,” she said. “Most volunteers will educate in some form or fashion, so that’s why we are in charge of their training. We are going to focus on recruitment, as we continue to try to grow our numbers.
“We do have a lot of long-term volunteers who have been dedicated to the mission of this place through thick and thin, which is inspiring. I hope they realize how much they are appreciated.”
There are some aspects of the education department that impressed Arledge in the early days of her return.
“As I came in and evaluated the education department, it became clear that we do overnight camps really well,” she said. “I think they have continued to get better over the years. That aspect of immersive education is essential, in my opinion, but overnight nature camps aren’t an option at many animal facilities.
“Education has been doing a lot of great work with scout groups and developing good relationships with various troops. The homeschool program has also been very successful.”
At the same time, changes are in order, as the education department adapts much like the native African species that are now comfortable roaming pastures in Central Texas.
“The first time I was here, any information guests would learn about the animals was what we would tell them,” Arledge said. “Nowadays, they can look up any animal fact on their phone. So, more of our job is about being advocates for the natural world – getting people excited about the animals so they want to go find out more and maybe help these species. I don’t know that you ever want to save something if you don’t come to appreciate it first.”
Guests of the education department can expect to get familiar with fresh air and sunshine.
“We have to get everyone, especially the younger generations, back out into nature,” she said. “Not to say we’ll never be in the classroom, but our education guests are going to spend more time out in the park. We have to ensure that everyone understands the basic fundamentals before we teach more complicated subjects. For example, we can’t talk about habitat loss if the guests don’t really understand habitats.
“Also, we need to remind people that we are a science-based organization. When people are here doing STEAM-related (science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics) activities, I want them to definitely see our staff as educators and a resource for the community.”
Arledge expects to incorporate a relatively new education concept called social emotional learning (SEL).
“We want to teach children empathy, for example,” she said. “That’s the first step in wanting to help these animals.”
She plans to increase the amount of visitor education. For example, when guests come to the Admission Center on busier days prior to heading into the park, there is likely to be a more consistent education presence.
Also, if possible, the education department will try to make an impact through multiple encounters with children.
“For outreach programs, I love the idea of visiting a school several times to get the students immersed in what we’re teaching,” she said. “When we teach a concept, how can we get the students to apply it in their daily lives? We are looking to enhance our outreach involvement and broaden the scope of our homeschool programs.”
Fossil Rim has long benefited from synergy among departments, and Arledge hopes to raise the bar higher still.
“Education can’t function without the support and coordination with other departments,” she said. “Fossil Rim is really good about the whole staff coming together for teamwork. We need support services, tourism in terms of the Overlook Café, marketing, animal care, and more, all in our corner. We have so many experts to call on, and each department helps us in their own way.
“I’ve met with every department director, and I can say that everyone is so supportive of Fossil Rim’s education efforts. They see the need for conservation education.
“Animal care is trying to help these species (populations) recover, and our job is to steer people toward not putting these species in precarious positions to begin with. To successfully fulfill our mission, it’s key for everyone at Fossil Rim to be in sync.”
If parents have not brought their children to the wildlife center for an educational experience, Arledge just wants a chance for her staff to make a positive impact. With that being said, she acknowledges the significant role the parents themselves can play.
“I want parents to be proud of their decision to bring their children here,” she said. “I know it’s not a quick drive out here for most, but making that trip tells me a parent has appreciation for nature and animals and wants their child to have a special experience. I love when parents help facilitate their child’s learning when they visit – really engaging them in what they’re seeing and getting them excited about it.
“Being in the car for a couple of hours with your child is a great opportunity for any parent. Maybe share some of your past nature experiences with them.”
This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of where Fossil Rim Education is headed.
“I feel like we have some experts in education just as we do in other departments, so it’s important to me to raise the awareness of this department and help people see what we have to offer,” Arledge said. “There will definitely be more changes to come. I would just ask that everyone stay tuned; we will keep them informed through our social media. For questions or comments about the education department, we can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
-Tye Chandler, Marketing Associate