What if the path to empowerment for urban students is through the local park?
Bronx, NY—In a borough with a disproportionate number of waste and power facilities and the highest child asthma hospitalization rate in New York City, high school interns at the Van Cortlandt Park Conservancy put on their garden gloves each summer to improve trails and weed out invasive species.
“It’s months later and I still feel like I’m part of Green Jobs,” said high school senior Harpreet Kaur, an alumna of the Conservancy’s Green Jobs for Youth program.
Thirty-one Bronx high school students over the past two summers have interned with Green Jobs for Youth. Working with foresters at the Conservancy and educators at Lehman College in the Bronx, students take environmental science courses, participate in forest restoration, inventory species in the park, and even earn GIS certification.
Director of Youth Programs Paulina Mohamed said at the Bronx Parks Speak Up networking event on Saturday, February 22, that the program is “geared towards high-achieving, under-served students.” The Speak Up event, sponsored by the Bronx Coalition for Parks and Green Spaces, gives environmental leaders in the Bronx River area a chance to compare goals, share successes, and connect with other groups.
In the 1980s, scholars started writing about how environmental education could be leveraged to increase self-confidence, lower dropout rates, and promote active citizenship. A 2010 Cornell University study drawing from interviews with environmental educators and students suggested that environmental action is “a valuable context for positive youth development.”
Why do communities like the South Bronx need positive youth development? A 2009 study commissioned by the America’s Promise Alliance found that the average urban literacy rate was only 60 percent, compared with 70 percent for all students. The study, entitled “Closing the Graduation Gap,” also found graduation rates were more than twenty percentage points higher for white and Asian students than for black, Hispanic, or Native American students.
Education reformers associate this graduation gap with the achievement gap, the disparity in academic performance between groups of students. The achievement gap, according to the Glossary of Education Reform, is a result of the opportunity gap, a disparity in resources available to students in different communities.
In urban schools that are struggling to increase literacy, decrease dropout rates, and cope with violence in their communities, why should reformers focus on environmental education? Is teaching students to recycle, turn off the lights, or bike to school a luxury reserved for middle class students in suburban schools?
Maybe. But the values and the goals of environmental education for urban students are more complex and diverse than biking to school.
The opportunity gap in communities like the South Bronx is often coupled with environmental justice issues. Residents are excluded from environmental decision making but suffer disproportionately from environmental problems such as pollution and the use of green spaces for industrial development.
South Bronx Unite, another organization tabling at Speak Up, took up the struggle with industrial developers for green spaces and properties along the Bronx River. South Bronx Unite is “one-hundred percent neighbors,” said member and South-Bronx resident Corrine Kohut. The group stalled the creation of a FreshDirect plant on the Bronx River and is getting its members involved in policy making, she said.
Can environmental education programs help create this kind of community empowerment?
Another goal of urban environmental education is to cultivate a sense of place. “It’s hard [for urban students] to get out of the mindset that nature is somewhere else,” said Ann Pedtke, NYC Outreach Coordinator of the Student Conservation Association (SCA), at Speak Up. The New York SCA focuses on local opportunities that connect young people with nature in the city, including monthly Hurricane Sandy recovery service events. SCA also brings students on trips to green spaces in the city. A lot of students say they “never knew those places existed,” Pedtke said.
Green Jobs looks to provide real-life opportunities to students in a community where many schools lack resources. The National Center for Education Statistics estimated in 2003 that the statewide New York illiteracy rate was 22 percent, while the Bronx County illiteracy rate was 41 percent, nearly double that. According to the 2000 census, about 70% of Bronx residents graduate high school, compared to about 85% nationwide.
The young people at Green Jobs work directly with professional foresters and conservationists at Van Cortlandt Park. Over the past two summers, interns have cleared out invasive species to make space for more biological diversity, installed water bars and brought in stone dust to improve the trails, and cared for young plants in the Arthur Nursery.
“We prepare [interns] for a career in the field,” Mohamed explained. Five of the program’s graduates are already going into environmental or STEM fields, she said. And students “keep coming back” to volunteer with the Conservancy: she pointed out two alumna in the crowd, young women with Green Jobs t-shirts and big smiles.
Environmental education programs can develop professional and personal skills. But how can environmental education compete for attention with issues like illiteracy and violence? Is there time or money for widespread urban environmental education? What kind of environmental programming is worthwhile for urban students?
The Bronx Parks Speak Up event, in its 20th year, is a networking event for policy makers, non-profits, and Bronx community members. The theme this year was “20/20 vision,” asking groups to look back at their accomplishments from the last 20 years and see forward to their goals for the next 20.
In this blog series, we will build a 20/20 vision for urban environmental education. We’ll examine its history, looking at its aims, its growth and its struggles. Looking forward, we will analyze how environmental education can empower students, address other urban issues, and help close the opportunity gap as cities move into the future.