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Environmental Literacy Making a Splash

October 10, 2011 5 min read
Freshman Kilee Henry, center, waits for fisherman to haul up a net in Virginia Beach, Va. She and classmates from Ocean Lakes High School attended the launch of one of the environmental-literacy efforts making a splash in schools.
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Environmental-literacy advocates are welcoming the launch of the federal Green Ribbon Schools program, suggesting it will help build on momentum they say is already evident for fostering across schools a deeper awareness and understanding of environmental issues.

Just days after the U.S. Department of Education unveiled criteria for the new competition late last month, a districtwide environmental-literacy initiative was announced for public schools in Virginia Beach, Va., that involves outside partners, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Meanwhile, experts say states are working on or have recently devised plans for environmental literacy.

Maryland in June adopted what’s believed to be a one-of-a-kind state graduation requirement related to environmental literacy. Under the mandate, all students must learn about environmental issues to graduate, with the focus on infusing the subject into existing courses rather than a separate class.

The federal awards program, inspired by the longtime Blue Ribbon Schools recognition initiative, will identify up to 50 schools next year that have done exemplary work in promoting environmental and sustainability education; healthy school environments; and energy efficiency and minimal environmental impact.

From left, Ocean Lakes High School junior Tiffani Munford and sophomores Sheila Velasco and Jemell Sander investigate a conch with Yancey Powell, the manager of the Bay Foundation Hampton Roads Education Program, last week in Virginia Beach, Va. Students in the school district will take part in field exercises and learn about the environment in the classroom as well.

The program, which over five years will expand to recognize 200 schools annually, was developed by the Education Department with support and advice from the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Council on Environmental Quality. In the first year, each state can nominate up to four schools for an award. Final decisions will be made by the Education Department with help from the EPA.

“We see it as an important, symbolic first step for the U.S. Department of Education to recognize the importance of environmental education,” as well as sound environmental practices in schools, said Don Baugh, the vice president of education at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a conservation organization based in Annapolis, Md.

“First and foremost, it brings for the first time the federal government into the ‘green schools’ movement, with a vision of green schools that is a comprehensive one,” said James L. Elder, the director of the nonprofit Campaign for Environmental Literacy, based in Manchester, Mass., who played a central role in promoting the idea of a Green Ribbon Schools program.

Unacceptable Role?

Not everyone, however, thinks the federal government should identify “green” schools. When the Obama administration in April first announced its plans, the move sparked criticism by some conservative bloggers and radio host Rush Limbaugh, who suggested it was aimed at “indoctrinating” young people based on a “hoax” about global warming.

Mr. Powell prepares the net for “setting out” to sea.

Neal P. McCluskey, an education analyst at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based free-market think tank, said he has several objections, including language in the criteria saying the federal government will base awards in part on how schools promote “civic engagement knowledge and skills” related to environmental issues.

That, he said, sounds like “the goal of this program is to mold little environmental activists, ... and that is not an acceptable role of government.”

‘A Teacher Here, a School There’

Last week, the Virginia Beach Systemic Environmental Literacy Program was launched at Long Bay Pointe Marina in the oceanside city. As part of the day’s activities, a group of high school biology students took to the water on a 50-foot vessel for a field investigation. They helped catch fish and other sea life while learning more about the animals and the local ecosystem.

Supported by a $120,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, along with $55,000 from CSX Transportation, the effort aims to provide hands-on Chesapeake Bay field experiences and classroom activities that will be embedded in the curriculum for 6th grade science classes in the 70,000-student Virginia Beach district, and in biology and oceanography courses.

“Most environmental education around the country has been with a teacher here or a school there,” said the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Mr. Baugh. “So that’s really the difference here, and why we call it systemic.”

“It’s really understanding more about our natural resources and how we can protect the watershed,” said Todd Tarkenton, the district’s director of instructional services. “You can read about it and hear about it, but to experience it has an even greater lasting impact.”

California officials, as part of a public-private partnership, unveiled in December a model environmental curriculum that aims to help schools statewide thread environmental topics throughout the curriculum.

“Right now, it’s being promoted and disseminated around the state, and so they’ve started with 20 early-adopter school districts,” said Gerald A. Lieberman, the director of the San Diego-based State Environment and Education Roundtable, who helped develop the materials.

The vast online collection of materials includes 85 curricular units, he said, as well as related support materials. The key to the California materials, Mr. Lieberman said, is that they are not designed as an add-on but rather to help students meet existing state standards in science and social studies.

Mr. Sander pets a blowfish, which was caught then thrown back into the Bay.

One unit in the curriculum drew criticism earlier this year, however, amid questions about whether a lobbying group for the plastics industry unduly influenced the materials to include information on the benefits of plastic shopping bags.

Still, several experts on environmental literacy see these programs and other developments as signs that environmental education is making important inroads.

One other such development is that many states are producing environmental-literacy plans. Washington state and Rhode Island issued plans this summer.

Mr. Elder of the Campaign for Environmental Literacy said that is significant, but he cautioned: “At the end of the day, it will be the quality of the plans that makes the difference, and what they do with them, and how seriously they are taken.”

Coverage of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education is supported by a grant from the GE Foundation, at www.ge.com/foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Environment Makes Splash In Curriculum

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