Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Outdoor Education in Seattle: Homewaters and Jane Addams K-8 School

UPDATE: Thanks to Brad Street and Christine Benita, I've made some corrections for accuracy and clarity. Where they address accuracy, I made a note; where they address clarity, I just made the update.

What with all the HEAR Chicago Talk preparations and everything, I'm, well, I'm a little behind. Just a little. Here, finally, are the last couple Great Puget Sound Outdoor Adventures (I have no photos for this post, since I visited a couple Commands Central instead of programs in action):

I had the chance to meet with Homewaters coordinator Brad Street over coffee in a shabby-genteel underground coffeehouse (I mean literally: underground). Like Brightwater,  Homewaters is affiliated with IslandWood, though in this case the connection is recent--Homewaters was an independent non-profit organization from its inception in 1992 until 2010. Also like Brightwater, it was started by teachers concerned about the health of a local watershed--in this case, Thornton Creek.

Whereas for the IslandWood School Overnight Program students travel to Bainbridge Island, and for Brightwater they travel to the Woodinville treatment plant, Homewaters programs make use of natural areas right in the school's community, sometimes even on school grounds. The three science-investigation units available, which correspond roughly to fourth- and fifth-grade Seattle School District science curricula, require access to a bit of green space and/or a body of water, and in the near-archipelago that is Seattle, those habitats are generally within walking distance.

Homewaters staff are invited to district professional development days and planning meetings to ensure they are up-to-date on the science curriculum and resources, and teachers are expected to attend training in preparation for hosting some of the units (NOTE: corrected to reflect the teacher training). These exchanges increase awareness of the program throughout the district, help Homewaters support teachers in implementation, and foster trusting relationships between educators and program staff.

One of those trusting relationships is with the science specialist at Jane Addams K-8 School, Christine Benita. I was fortunate to be able to catch her one morning and talk to her about Jane Addams and the seriously thoughtful and effective work she's done there.

Jane Addams is an "option" school in the Seattle School District--like magnet schools in other areas, option schools have a specific programmatic or thematic focus and draw from students throughout the district rather than strictly from the surrounding neighborhood. The focus at Jane Addams is environmental science, and the school principal (note: corrected from "district") had the excellent sense and vision to provide a staff member dedicated solely to developing, nurturing, and maintaining this focus. Christine Benita has filled that position since the school's conversion in 2009.

Ms. Benita's stewardship of the program is well paced--I do not mean fast-paced, which is what education policy usually demands and which rarely makes any positive and lasting impact--but well-paced. This change is being built to last--to produce high-quality curriculum and to retain good people and build on their leadership.

Jane Addams is in its fourth year as an option school now. The first year, Ms. Benita asked the  teachers to simply carry on with their regular science curriculum as everyone got settled in to the new option-school model, but to think about how the environmental science focus could benefit their units. The second year, the teachers started expanding some units to allow for off-site and in-school science investigation, and, correspondingly, find ways to be more efficient with other units. They also received professional development in science writing. The third year, last year, teachers started integrating social studies and other subject areas into the science lessons to create a more authentic and holistic learning experience. And this past year, the school implemented a cross-grade theme of "spheres:" grades K, 1, and 4 focus on the biosphere, grades 2, 3, and 7 on the litho- and geosphere, grades 5 and 6 focus on the hydrosphere, and grade 8 on the atmosphere (note: corrected from "a mix"). The themes unify the school and accommodate grade-by-grade learning goals in the other core subject areas in addition to science. Jane Addams' next step is to make an organized push to become an eSTEM school (an environmental focus achieved through highlighting connections to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

The young school is generating a lot of interest from other schools in the region, who are looking to its science programming as a model for their own. Our conversation illuminated three ingredients in its success.

First,  Ms. Benita's job description gives her the time required to effectively research and secure free, low-cost, or grant-funded curriculum and instruction resources, and then to implement those resources meaningfully. Jane Addams uses curriculum from organizations such as the Audubon society and accesses experiences provided by a variety of organizations, public, non-profit, and private, including NOAA, Boeing, Seattle Parks, and Homewaters/ IslandWood.

Secondly, Ms. Benita has been able to put the program into place one step at a time and with sufficient time and resources. She is also able to conduct nearly all professional development related to new processes, methods, and materials herself, and what she doesn't deliver is done by another staff member, so the learning and implementing required of staff remains an internal process owned by them.

And third, she has the complete support of her principal. The principal, Ms. Benita told me, makes it happen budgetwise and philosophically--then she, the science coordinator, can make it happen with  research, program planning, outreach, and grants and partnerships.

All of my experiences in Seattle--touring IslandWood, observing classes at Brightwater, speaking with Brad Street from Homewaters and Christine Benita from Jane Addams--were so inspiring. I feel like I have been using that word a lot, but I mean it; the visit provoked an excitement in me about the possibilities for incorporating green spaces big and small into formal learning, and helped me envision ways this could happen in Chicago.

But it also highlighted for me the very daunting barriers to meaningfully integrating nature-based lessons with formal education--or transforming education in any other way, for that matter. And that's for the next blog post, shortly (really!! like within a day!) to follow.

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