Browsing around the National Park Service’s website, you may have noticed information here and there on how “educational institutions” can apply for fee waivers for the park they plan to visit.
At Fort McHenry National Monument in Baltimore, for example, the park cheerfully accepts fee waiver applications for homeschool groups, but there’s a bit of work to be done before applying, so consider the time you’ll spend documenting the fact that you’re a legitimate homeschooling family as required in the permit application.
Since Fort McHenry has no entrance fee for children, you’re really only saving money for the adults in the group. If you’re only one adult with three children, that’s a whopping savings of $7.00. For other large parks with hefty entrance fees, or in situations where several homeschooling familes are visiting the park together, you may actually save a lot of money. Regardless, if you’ve got the “fort”-itude to put in the effort to get that fee waiver, here are some suggestions:
- Check the website for the park you plan on visiting. Although most have the same basic requirements, each park’s instructions vary slightly. Here’s the homeschool-friendly application for Fort McHenry, as an example.
- Even if a park’s site doesn’t specifically state that homeschooling families may apply for the fee waiver, assume that you may. While a call to the park for clarification may be a good idea, the old adage “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission” applies here. Send in your application and assume that it will be approved if you’ve completed the application as requested. When it asks for your application under the official letterhead of your educational organization, give your family’s school a name. Ours is simply “Merryman Academy”, and I’m the Vice Principal.
- Back up your application with an itinerary, lesson plan, reading list for your children, and anything else that might show this park visit is an integral part of your child’s homechooling curriculum. As most of us know, without much effort, most homeschooled children are destined to learn more during a park visit than some kid hopping off the school bus with a 10-to-1 kid-to-chaperone ratio. But you’ll still need to fend off the perception that you’re just some family trying to get in free, so do your homework and be sure to make it look official.
- Most parks want to see your application three weeks ahead of time. Don’t get it in late and ask them to bend the rules just for you. As homeschoolers who benefit from this program, we want the park employees who approve our applications to think of us as willing to follow the rules and pleasant to deal with in every way. Remember that we’re all keepers of the homeschoolers’ reputation!
- When sending in that application well in advance of the three-week deadline, ask the park for recommendations for your children on books to read or videos to watch before and/or after the visit. While some parks may simply refer you to their vast collection of books for sale in the Visitor Center bookstore, others might actually have valuable suggestions that you hadn’t considered. Either way, you’ve demonstrated your commitment to making this visit an essential part of your kids’ education.
- Use the application process as motivation to truly plan out your lesson or learning opportunity. By taking the time to document what you’re hoping your children will learn, you’ve suddenly set goals for yourself, and as we all know, written goals are far more likely to be accomplished than the ones floating around in our heads.
If you can afford the park fees and don’t mind supplementing the upkeep of our nation’s treasures, you have a couple of options. One is to simply pay the fees as advertised. For the occasional park visitors with very busy lives and not a lot of time to fill out applications, or for families who like spontaneity, this is a perfectly viable option.
A second option is to purchase the annual America the Beautiful Pass that gets you into most National Park administered areas for a one-time fee (park museums, historic homes, and caves are notable exceptions). For families like mine, this is the best option. We still submit fee waiver applications when visiting a park with other homeschool families, but most of the time it’s just us, and whipping out that card like you’re a “club member” is a great feeling.
And we are club members, after all. By purchasing that annual pass, you’re making a statement that whether or not you visit enough parks to get your “money’s worth”, you think it’s important to fund the National Parks, National Forests, and other public lands for future generations to enjoy.