Seaton Elementary School (1503 10 St. NW) Principal Suzanne Peters says adding an environmental education plan for fourth graders was an important contribution — not only to their overall education, but to the whole child. “We just want to create a space where kids can be happy,” she said.
Seaton has had a school garden for more than eight years, and last summer added a river garden to the school yard. “Kids enjoy outdoors and the environment. It’s a great space,” said Peters. “It supports wildlife, especially insects, and the river.”
Seaton is not the only District school taking advantage of opportunities to add environmental education initiatives to their curriculum. Many schools are drawing on programs offered by the Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE) and organizations such as the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) as well as institutions like the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). Gardening organizations such as DC Greens and City Blossoms also offer programs that connect students with the earth, the environment and the future.
The District DOEE has been offering environmental education programs since 2008, when the RiverSmart Schools Program was initiated. Since then 45 schools, including Seaton, Excel Academy PCS, Mary McLeod Bethune Academy PCS, St. Columba’s Nursery School and the British School of Washington have participated in the schoolyard greening projects.
The RiverSmart program incorporates landscape design principles to create wildlife habitat, emphasize the use of native plants and highlight water conservation. In addition, the program provides teachers with training and resources to use the schoolyard as an outdoor classroom for hands-on learning.
Following the inception of its environmental programming, DOEE expanded its offerings to include seven programs which focus on litter, storm water issues, District Rivers, green energy and work experiences.
Every year the RiverSmart Program partners with AWS to build river gardens at five schools in the District. DOEE builds three large scale gardens, and AWS focuses on two smaller projects. The river gardens have multiple benefits. They reduce storm water runoff into sewer systems, reduce sewage overflow and filter out pollutants. They also add green space and reduce the heat associated with pavement.
AWS has been offering its own educational programing to District schools since about 1996, said Ariel Trahan, AWS Director of River Restoration Programming. AWS works with schools in the District and Prince Georges County to ensure that environmental advocacy is being reinforced by teaching. The Society also offers five additional programs designed to encourage students to consider watershed ecology and to involve them in river restoration through tours of the river, planting foliage, and reintroducing shad and freshwater mussels.
Harnessing the Power of the Community
Seaton draws on both DOEE and AWS resources in their environmental program. Their river garden was installed last summer as part of the DOEE program, and students have completed the AWS SONG (Saving Our Native Grassland) project, a three-part program that involved an initial tour of the river. Students then grew plants native to the Anacostia River in their classroom and later returned to the river to plant them.
Kelly Custer is a teacher at River Terrace Education Campus (405 Anacostia Ave. NE). Located near the Anacostia River, the school serves special education students from third grade to adulthood. He said environmental education is a key element of the horticulture class offered to workforce development students aged 18 to 22.
“The year is geared to looking at DC as a community and an environment, and looking at various inequities that they can see, and that various parts of the District expose. They can’t solve they the conflict, but they can do something just to restore justice.”
The class partners with AWS to do environmental education at the Anacostia River, where they grow native plants and assist with river clean-ups. They also partner with the University of the District of Columbia’s College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences (CAUSES) program at various greenhouses and at the UDC program’s farm in Beltsville, MD where they learn about urban gardening, landscaping and food production.
The River Terrace program links the balance of the environment to the balance between self and society. Custer says that the curriculum is centered around conflict resolution by helping students take ownership of the environment and their community, identify conflict between people and between people and the environment, and try to come up with solutions.
“They really feel they are involved in resolutions of conflicts they can see,” said Custer.
The societal impact of environmental education is important, said District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Interim Chancellor Amanda Alexander. “When I visit our schools, I see our students recycling, caring for their community gardens, and learning about how their actions impact the Anacostia River,” she said.
Two Rivers Public Charter School (820 26th St. NE) is also working to come up with solutions. The school has had a 14-year partnership with AWS in the form of a fourth-grade project that teaches children to understand and care for the local ecosystem. Students focus on understanding ecology and interconnected systems through the lens of the local watershed.
Working with AWS and staff, students look at ways to harness the power of the Two Rivers community to accelerate improvements to the Anacostia River. They have given presentations, produced brochures, and developed websites to share their learning and recommend action steps. One such site offers explanations of terminology as well as videos and experiments, including one that tests whether ground is impervious and potentially harmful to river quality.
Last year, Two Rivers students were finalists in the Caring for Our Watershed Youth Contest for 2018. The contest, sponsored by Nutrien, awards prizes to students who submit the most provocative ideas for ways to improve their watershed. Funding and mentorship are available to turn ideas into reality. Two of the Two Rivers projects placed second and fifth and were awarded with cash prizes of hundreds of dollars. The students were the only elementary participants in the contest competing against middle and high school students.
Formulating Solutions — Together
There are other opportunities available to District elementary schools to involve their students in activities that get them thinking about environmental problems and formulating solutions.
At the annual Electric Grand Prix, student teams apply engineering, science, and math principles and strategy to construct and race battery powered electric cars. The event aims to improve students’ understanding of renewable energy technologies and project management while working in a team environment.
Each year the Anacostia Environmental Youth Summit attracts approximately 400 District students in grades four to eight. The summit emphasizes youth leadership and innovation. Students interact with environmental educators from numerous public and private organizations and engage in hands-on learning experiences.
Another opportunity is presented by the Saturday Environment Academy, open to middle school students in spring and fall. Ten Saturday-morning sessions are offered at Sasha Bruce (741 Eighth St. SE) where the focus is on different environmental themes. This fall, the theme is ‘Year of the Anacostia,’ and students will learn about the river and visit different sites.
The many environmental education initiatives offered in District schools facilitate different aspects of learning and personal development. They link people to the soil and to the ecosystem; they open students’ eyes to the connectedness of humans to one another and to the earth; and they provide opportunity for aesthetic appreciation, socialization, and employment.
But ultimately, the most important result is perhaps the simplest.
“I think it helps to make them happy,” Seaton’s Suzanne Peters said, “and that’s so important.”
For More Information
Seaton Elementary School https://seatondc.org/
Two Rivers PCS https://www.tworiverspcs.org/
River Terrace Education Campus (DCPS Profile –does not have own public website) http://profiles.dcps.dc.gov/River+Terrace+Education+Campus
Saturday Environmental Academy https://www.anacostiaws.org/what-we-do/education/saturday-environmental-academy.html
School-Based Programs https://www.anacostiaws.org/what-we-do/education/school-based-programs.html
Anacostia Youth Summit https://doee.dc.gov/service/anacostia-environmental-youth-summit
Electric Vehicle Grand Prix http://globaleee.org/DCEVGP.html