School Superintendents Take Learning Outside

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On March 2, 2017, 93 education leaders embarked on an investigation of climate change through a boat excursion into a bayou south of New Orleans and a tour of the city’s hurricane-ravaged Lower 9th Ward.

The one-day explorers were among the hundreds of school superintendents gathered in New Orleans for the three-day annual conference of the American Association of School Administrators. During their first day, 93 of these leaders representing 25 states and Canada, joined the Superintendents’ Environmental Education Collaborative (SEEC) for a one hour conference session and four-hour field trip that examined environmental education through the lens of the southern Louisiana ecosystem.

The collaborative encourages superintendents to include environmental education in their districts’ curricula, and helps show them how they can do so. The superintendents immersed themselves in the bayou’s ecosystem, observing alligators, eating freshly shucked oysters, holding crawfish, and casting nets into the shallow grasses. As they looked and worked, they talked about how cross-cutting themes and issues from the excursion might translate to the ecosystems of their school districts and states. Sarah Bodor from the North American Association for Environmental Education was hopeful that superintendents may travel home to their own communities to “engage students in thinking about those issues and finding creative and innovative solutions to those problems.”

While studying the interrelationships between humans and nature in coastal Louisiana, the superintendents were able to see effects of sea level rise on Bayou Segnette and the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. Three U.S. National Park Service scientists who joined the expedition explained that management of the river and coast has prevented sediment from replenishing the low-lying land. “We are removing all the resources that the river brings,” said Julie Whitbeck, a park service ecologist. Also joining the group were Arthur Johnson and Happy Johnson from the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development, a local nonprofit. They interpreted the beleaguered landscape as we traveled down barren streets lined with boarded up houses, graffiti and foundations where houses once stood.  We also saw pockets of rebuilding, such as those funded by Brad Pitt, that featured sustainable design and construction on pilings.

Many states and school districts have Environmental Literacy Plans (ELPs) that help guide environmental education. The plans from California and Maryland were showcased at SEEC’s one hour conference session hosted by Superintendent Anne Campbell from San Mateo County, CA and Dr. Kevin Maxwell from Prince George’s County Public Schools, MD. While discussing Maryland’s ELP and graduation requirement, Dr. Maxwell talked about his hope for the future. “We hope that our children will graduate aware of the needs of the environment and . . . will be equipped with the knowledge that allows them to tackle these problems,” he said.

Kathy McGlauflin, director of Project Learning Tree, which provides environmental curriculum and training, was hopeful the outing had delivered a message. “It was a great day for the school superintendents to see how they can get their own schools, teachers and students out exploring the world around them,” she said. Don Baugh, president of Upstream Alliance, which organized the trip, agreed. “We have the potential to make a big impact in school systems. We have a responsibility to help the next generation,” he said.

Watch a video about SEEC and the excursion in New Orleans.