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Teach Your Children Well: Education Mandate Propels Environmental Programs in Schools

Sep 25, 2015 10:12AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Barbara Pash

At 9 in the morning on a chilly day last fall, 140 students and three teachers— the entire ninth grade of St. Michaels High School’s general biology class—arrived at Lewistown Road Community Park. Over the course of two days, the students planted 1,800 bare-root saplings, all native trees, mainly oak but also pine and cedar varieties.

“The kids were hesitant at first. Most had never planted a tree before. The girls found worms—some loved them, others didn’t,” says Elle O’Brien, education and outreach coordinator of Midshore Riverkeeper Conservancy, a non-profit conservation group, who arranged and oversaw the tree-planting last year at the Queen Anne’s County park.

The tree planting was part of Midshore’s plan to help the four counties within its jurisdiction—Caroline, Dorchester, Queen Anne’s, and Talbot—meet the state’s new environmental education requirement for high school graduation, the first state in the country to so mandate.

At the behest of the Maryland State Department of Education, for more than a decade public schools have provided multi-disciplinary environmental education as part of the curriculum for grades kindergarten through 12. And starting with students entering high school in 2011–2012, environmental literacy became a graduation requirement.

The mandate covers eight topics such as environment and health, human and natural resources, and community and eco-systems. How these topics are taught and who teaches them is left up to each of the state’s 24 public school systems. The department offers help in the form of an environmental education curriculum, learning packets, and teacher training.

Midshore Riverkeeper already had a strong environmental program but the state’s mandate upped the stakes.

In the 2013–2014 school year, Midshore piloted an enriched plan in two high schools, expanding it to six schools in 2014–2015. During the school year, Midshore staffers visit each class in each school six times and host two field trips each.

Staffers work with teachers and students that, given Midshore’s focus, mainly test water quality in local streams. There is no charge to the schools. The state Department of Natural Resources’ Stream Restoration Challenge funds Midshore’s program.

Midshore’s plan “is based on the education department’s standards and coordinated with teachers’ lesson plans,” O’Brien says. “We are helping the schools in four counties fulfill the new state requirement.”

The Lewistown field trip was Midshore’s first tree planting, the purpose being to widen the tree buffer and improve the water quality of the creek behind the park. “It was a bit nerve-wracking,” O’Brien confesses.

She needn’t have worried. “The kids turned it into a competition of who could plant the most trees,” says O’Brien, who knew the trip was a success when a student told her, “It’s one thing to read about the environment but actually experiencing it for yourself is another.”
Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, said it wasn’t feasible to tell local school systems how to implement the mandate.

For a start, they’re too diverse for a single method to work for all. For another, the department wanted them to have leeway in meeting the standards. “There is no state test associated with the mandate because each jurisdiction is different,” he says.

Whatever the mechanism, the state’s goal of “environmental literacy,” in Reinhard’s words, appears to be succeeding.

As soon as the mandate was approved, he began getting calls from educators around the country asking about it. “I don’t know if other states have it, but there’s a lot of interest in what Maryland has done,” he says.

Educators seem to like it as well. “Students want to learn about the environment. They want to be involved in cleaning up the rivers and Chesapeake Bay,” Reinhard confirms. “We’ve been getting nothing but praise from teachers and positive feedback from local systems.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation was instrumental in establishing the environmental education curriculum for all grades and the subsequent high school graduation requirement.

The Annapolis-headquartered nonprofit is now taking a leading role in educating the educators, offering summer institutes and workshops during the school year. The institutes began in 2012 and, so far, have been funded by the state and private foundations.

“We led the policy but we also wanted to help the school systems achieve this requirement,” says Tom Ackerman, the foundation’s director of teacher training.

To do so, the foundation has formed the Maryland Environmental Literacy Partnership with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, the state department of education, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay office, and the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

To date, the partnership has worked with nine of the 24 school systems. It doesn’t sound like a lot but these nine urban and suburban systems represent more than 70 percent of the public school students in Maryland. Other systems have expressed an interest in joining the partnership. Ackerman hopes they do.

“We are trying to establish a model for how to enact the requirements. We want active, student-driven involvement, not just going through a book,” says Ackerman, who adds that while the state currently doesn’t have teacher certification, that may happen this year.

Ackerman talks about environmental investigations that gather data and formulate solutions. He envisions hands-on projects rather than computer worksheets. He is seeking teachers who can take the tools the partnership is developing and apply them to the classroom. And all, he says, “with minimal cost to the school systems.”

It’s a big job. But the way Ackerman sees it, a huge opportunity as well.

“Education has experienced a lot of changes, and one of them is the emphasis on getting students to think critically,” he says. “We are hoping that in the future, students can translate what they learn about the environment into a lifelong understanding.”