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The Green Model

Kiley Jacques

Multiple organizations and hundreds of individuals band together in the name of environmental literacy.

Environmental education consultant Rebecca Davis is deeply aware of the complexities involved in turning D.C.’s schools into models of sustainability. With grant funding from both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Clean Air Partners, Davis works on behalf of the DC Environmental Education Consortium (DCEEC) to help construct an “environmental literacy framework” for the city’s students. This framework brings together information, attitudes and skills necessary to make informed decisions about natural and urban systems.

DCEEC comprises 20 to 30 organizations who work together to bolster a network of environmental and conservation educators, increasing their capacity to provide meaningful environmental education. Together with DC Greens—whose mission it is to help area residents gain access to healthy, affordable foods—and the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS), which works to restore the river and its tributaries to a swimmable and fishable state, the consortium is integral to realizing the mayor’s vision of “greening” D.C.’s schools.

Heeding the call of the Healthy Schools Act of 2010, the three organizations, in collaboration with school educators, have banded together to prioritize the health and wellness of students throughout the District. Toward that end, the Environmental Literacy Plan provides a road map for standards, professional development, assessments and leadership that will help secure district-wide implementation and integration of environmental education into the K-12 curriculum.

Davis works both with DCEEC and Metropolitan Washington Council Government addressing issues related to energy, climate change and air quality—her branch of the effort covers those areas. AWS addresses the watershed and water-testing component. And DC Greens looks at land use, school gardens and nutrition.

“Each of our organizational missions represents a different aspect of environmental education,” explains DC Greens director of education Sarah Holway Bernardi. “We feel that together, we bring a full spectrum of expertise to the project, which is why we teamed up.”

The effort is being funded by a grant resulting from the Sustainable DC Mayor’s Budget Challenge. To date, eight schools have been chosen to serve as models—one school in each of the city’s eight wards—“because sometimes things happen in one part of the city and not in another,” explains Davis.

Criteria for choosing schools had much to do with existing programs.

“One of the reasons we picked the schools that we did,” notes Davis, “is that they were already doing a lot of things. One of the schools has a chicken coop, a school garden, a little weekly market.”

Additionally, they were looking for a diverse ethnic and socioeconomic student population. In D.C., there is a near 50:50 ratio of public to charter schools. The eight model schools are a combination of the two as well as a mix of elementary, middle and high schools.

Furthermore, Davis explains, “We tried to choose schools that had administrators that were receptive to the whole idea. We needed administrators who were willing to both work in their own schools and … then be ambassadors.”

Each school selected an environmental educator coordinator and received a stipend of $2,500. These coordinators serve as points of contact.

“This year has been focused on bringing teachers from each school together to work on the framework,” says Bernardi. “We wanted it to be rooted in what’s already being well taught in our schools.”

To get the ball rolling, Davis, Bernardi, Arial Trahan from AWS and the head of the Sustainable DC Plan, Brendan Shane, met in October to talk about what it would all look like. They discussed the plan in terms of what is happening at the national level, as well as local efforts like the Next Generation Science Standard, which provides guidelines that a lot of states want to incorporate into their science studies.

One of the biggest ideas at this stage is getting students to think about their effect on environmental health.

“There’s a sort of concentric idea we are looking for,” notes Davis. Kids in grades K-3 look at what they can do as individuals; starting in fourth grade they look at their neighborhoods; by fifth grade they are looking at the Chesapeake Bay, the wider community, their local government and the nation. Educators explore with them actions they can take. “There’s a fair bit of repetition, but the repetition builds in complexity,” says Davis.

The next step is to figure out how to implement the framework throughout the city. The group is hoping to create an environmental literacy coordinator position at the Office of State Superintendent Education (OSSE).

“Then the implementation might be a little more rigorous. Right now it’s just kind of do what you can,” says Davis.

Teachers will be the “first sphere of influence”— other schools will look to the models to see what is feasible for their own facility and curriculum.

For the next two years, all who are involved will act at every level to get kids thinking about their environment.

But, as Davis points out, “it will only work if the teachers are into it. I can come up with all kinds of ideas, but the teachers ground it in reality.”

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