Environmental Education and Struggling Schools

How do effective environmental programs relate to student achievement?

Seventh and eighth graders in CEEP’s Earth Force program choose a local environmental issue to study and develop a project to address it. Photo courtesy of Lakeside Views.

Seventh and eighth graders in CEEP’s Earth Force program choose a local environmental issue to study and develop a project to address it. Photo courtesy of Lakeside Views.

In the Calumet Region along the southern shores of Lake Michigan, the Chicago Field Museum serves over 2,700 students in grades four through twelve with its Calumet Environmental Education Program (CEEP). Fourth through sixth graders learn about biodiversity through field trips to local nature and stewardship activities; middle school students identify local environmental issues and develop action projects around them; high schoolers participate in ecological monitoring, attend leadership days, and work at summer internships.

“Growing up and learning through the Calumet Environmental Education Program…shaped the path my life would follow,” Purdue University sophomore Sophia Vela wrote for the Field Museum’s website. Vela is majoring in Natural Resources and Environmental Science at Purdue’s College of Agriculture.

CEEP makes use of the rich ecological resources in the Calumet Region to teach students about conservation and biodiversity. But just north of the Calumet Region, the Chicago public school system, like urban school systems all over the US, struggles with funding issues, school closings, and race and socioeconomic achievement gaps.

An article by the Response to Intervention Action Network (RtI) examined the structural and cultural challenges faced by urban school systems in the US. The authors found that urban schools face persistently low student achievement, low expectations set for students, and a teaching staff that stays inexperienced as experienced teachers move to higher-achieving and lower-poverty schools.

Teachers and educational leaders in urban communities often see race and class as limiting factors to student achievement, leading them to accept low performance as the norm.

Many low-income urban schools struggle with high truancy rates due to factors that include school safety, lack of affordable transportation, mental health issues, and the failure of schools to inform families about attendance issues. Truant students are more likely to be low achieving and much more likely to drop out of high school than students with good attendance.

In schools with low student achievement, the importance of state test scores looms over students, teachers, and administrators. The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act requires all public schools to meet “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) towards proficiency in math and English. Schools that don’t meet AYP for multiple years receive technical assistance, see their students offered other options of schools, and eventually face state or charter takeover or the replacement of most of the staff.

The Common Core standards, a set of guidelines for students’ math and English knowledge at the end of each grade, offer an alternative to No Child Left Behind. When assessments for Common Core begin in the 2014/2015 school year, they will also be measured through state tests.

Urban schools overwhelmingly underperform on state tests compared to rural and suburban schools. A 2003 report on schools in Michigan that failed to meet AYP found that 85% of the failing schools were in urban centers. A school’s independence rests on its testing success; resources in urban schools, from funding to professional development, are often focused on improving student test scores.

Other issues—like environmental education—can be overshadowed by testing. Damian Griffin of the Bronx River Alliance said the education program there used to run an election day training for 60 to 100 teachers in the Bronx, who would come “to learn about the river, water, soil”—and then carry that learning back to their students. This training stopped, Griffin said, as schools replaced it with professional development that was more directly related to test performance.

What kind of environmental education is worthwhile in the context of low achievement, low expectations, inexperienced staff, and high dropout rates? Can urban schools that are failing to meet AYP afford environmental education?

A growing pool of data shows that, in fact, environmental education can positively influence other problems in urban schools.

Environmental education (EE) schools focus on sciences and math to build environmental leadership and stewardship among students. Far from taking resources from test scores, EE has been shown to improve test scores.

A 1997-2002 Washington State study comparing EE schools to traditional schools with similar ethnic, socioeconomic, and location demographics found that the mean number of students who met testing standards for math and English was higher in EE schools for both subjects, across all five years of the study. Many teachers and administrators surveyed said that EE could improve attendance rates.

EE is especially important in cities because urban students are often cut off from nature—especially low-income urban students whose families are less likely to have time or resources to take them hiking or pay for a vacation. For decades, researchers have explored the benefits of green spaces.

A national study of over 500 parents and guardians of children with ADHD found that activities in green outdoor spaces reduced ADHD symptoms significantly more than activities indoors or in man-made outdoor spaces like parking lots. These results were consistent across age, gender, and socioeconomic demographics.

Studies have found that nearby nature provides a buffer that decreases the impact of stressful life events on children. A 2006 study linked physical activity while exposed to nature—“green exercise”—to reduced blood pressure, increased self esteem, and improved mood.

For urban students, exposure to nature can be transformative. Paulina Mohamed of Green Jobs for Youth at Van Cortland Park in the Bronx said, “When students from an urban area first get into green spaces, there is some sort of fear about scary bugs or danger.” Interns at Green Jobs work in the park clearing trails and weeding invasive species. “Students are blown away by the end of the summer,” Mohamed said. “They say, ‘I didn’t know we were still in the Bronx.’”

In addition to the physical and mental health benefits of nature exposure, environmental education programs provide real-life experience by involving students in real issues. In the Washington State study, teachers and principals from EE schools reported that environmental education could be valuable in improving critical thinking skills and developing a sense of citizenship.

When she was 16, Mohamed, a South Bronx native, participated in the Forest Project Summer Collaborative, where she did fieldwork at Wave Hill in the Bronx.  “I kept going back every year,” she said, developing communication and leadership skills, and beginning to identify herself as an “environmental steward.”

At Green Jobs, Mohamed’s interns work with professionals and lead volunteer groups, developing many of the same skills.

Environmental education programs set high expectations when they involve students in real projects and complicated community issues. “Research has shown that given the opportunity and appropriate support, students will live up to the high expectations set forth for them,” the RtI authors wrote.

Place-based environmental education links students to the nature that surrounds them. In the Calumet Region in Illinois, this means hands-on learning about conservation in the region’s fields, swamps and marshes. CEEP students develop leadership skills as they participate in internships and develop action projects in the region-wide program.

In urban schools, effective environmental education takes on extra values: improving student achievement and bringing green spaces to students disconnected with nature. To be effective in these schools, environmental education must account for community needs on a regional scale. And it must provide students with the life skills—problem solving, leadership, and field experience—that they need to succeed in school and in future careers.

Place-based, action based environmental education cannot be overlooked in the context of urban education. While test scores and budgets are tight, effective environmental programs provide indispensable nature exposure, life skills, and community leadership—and increase student achievement in the schools that need it most.

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