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Environmental center caters to boro schools

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Denise Brown of Rockaway sits by her desk at a window overlooking Floyd Bennett Field and talks on the phone trying to find out why she has to travel to a Moroccan restaurant to get snails.

After speaking for a few minutes with her colleague, she explains that the only place to find a certain type of snail, which will be used to show borough students how life cycles exist in ecosystems, is in local restaurants because they are so rare.

But hard-to-find resources won't stop Brown, who for more than 19 years has been working in School District 27, covering Ozone Park, South Ozone Park, Howard Beach and the Rockaway peninsula, and other parts of the city Department of Education to raise awareness of the local environment.

Her dedication has led her to the Gateway Environmental Study Center, a facility aimed at educating children from all five boroughs about wildlife, plants and ecosystems in the nation's only urban national park - Gateway National Recreation Area.

"We're here for the children of New York," said Brown, 41, a 39-year resident of Rockaway, who assumed the post of coordinator at the Brooklyn center in September. "Here every child is able to learn something and be part of a group."

The 27-year-old student learning center is funded by the Department of Education, which leases the two-story building from the federal government, the official owners of Gateway National Recreation Area, Brown said. She said children from all parts of the city come to the center with their teachers to learn everything from physical and earth sciences to how and why erosion occurs at local beaches.

Brown, who studied science at Syracuse University and then got her master's degree in education from Brooklyn College, knows the local environment and the people, animals and wildlife that inhabit it from years of experience. She is using her knowledge to educate both teachers and students about environmental issues and problems in the hopes of getting them excited about their surroundings.

"We're trying anything and everything to get people out here," said Brown, who is also reaching out to local community members and inviting them to use the learning center as a source of adult education. "My love is for animals and all things that have to do with the environment."

Brown has been in the city's Department of Education for more than 19 years, having served as a school teacher and district science coordinator responsible for writing and implementing the city's science curriculum. She also said she helped write the state science curriculum.

Since assuming the coordinator position in September, Brown said she has worked hard to involve as many children as possible in the center's programming. Three specific, on-going workshops allow students to interact with their environment and its inhabitants and to see how it changes and reacts to changes.

One program called "Dynamic Seashores" coordinates with PS 225 in Rockaway and allows students to measure the amounts of erosion and pollution on the seashore and predict future trends based on data they gather using scientific tools. Brown said, for example, students measure the height of sand and continually check back in to see how much has disappeared and the consequences, if any, of constant erosion.

Either way, Brown lets the students decide and said the entire process is designed to get them thinking and solving problems, tools that help them on standardized tests and in other school-related endeavors. She said all students who come to the site, including handicapped, ESL and ELL students, can participate in the center's activities.

"We go out and have a bit of fun and the children end up learning about physics," she laughed. "I'm lucky that my hobby and my job came together."

And this dedication and interest in educating the students who come through the center is no more evident than her key chain: alongside the keys that open the library room, storage closet and conference room, there are credit-card sized charts displaying the various hoof tracks and leaf shapes of local animals and plants surrounding the facility.

"We have squirrels, birds, rabbits, mice and chipmunks," she said of the many animals that live around the learning center. "This is a very special place."

Brown said she has had to fight to keep the center alive in the midst of budget cuts that threatened to close the facility as recently as December. She said although the city reached an agreement with the federal government to keep the site open, the center's funding will expire in June and its existence will again be in question.

But Brown said she has already begun organizing local legislators, including state Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer (D-Rockaway), and other partner organizations that work with the center to galvanize support if the DOE attempts to close the site. She said she has contacted the state Department of Environmental Conservation, city Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Parks and Recreation and Department of Sanitation.

In spite of all this, Brown said she continues to focus on the center and science lessons she wants to teach future students. Sitting in her chair again at the window after a tour of the facility, she explained just how easy it would be to operate the facility on a continual basis.

"It requires only a bus and some enthusiasm," she said.

Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or by phone at 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 156

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