All Big Things Start Small

Note: U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools recognizes schools, districts and postsecondary institutions that are 1) reducing environmental impact and costs; 2) improving health and wellness; and 3) teaching environmental education. To share innovative practices in these three ‘Pillars,’ the Department conducts an annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour of honorees.

Recently I was at Edgewood School in Prior Lake, Minn., where preschoolers were sitting on tiny tree stumps in an outdoor classroom custom-made just for them. They loved their little chairs and were completely engaged in the morning meeting with their teacher. Seeing these littlest ones learning so effectively in nature got me thinking about how one small initiative can grow into something much bigger.

Preschool students at Edgewood School have the option to enroll in Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools’ nature-based preschool. (Photo credit: Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools)

Preschool students at Edgewood School have the option to enroll in Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools’ nature-based preschool. (Photo credit: Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools)

The Environmental Education (EE) programs at Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools started out in just this way: one small effort at one school. Yet this year we found ourselves showcasing our districtwide EE programs during the recent Green Strides Best Practices Tour of Five Hawks and Jeffers Pond Elementary.

On any given day in Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools, you will find teachers and students outside, certainly for recreational activities – but also for science, math, reading, even art. Environmental Education is embedded into nearly all curricular areas, districtwide.

Visitors often ask, “How did you make this happen in all of your schools?” The answer is, we started small. Five Hawks Elementary set the stage for EE programming with teachers who are passionate about helping students build critical thinking skills, fostering a love for the environment and getting students outdoors.

One of the first things they did was plan an annual Outdoor Learning Festival, where students do hands-on activities, taking water samples, studying leaf structure and entomology, and much more.

The success of that program got a lot of attention and led staff, parents and school board members to embed environmental education into our district’s Strategic Plan, which will guide the expansion of our environmental focus.

Now EE also takes place through Community Education classes and student clubs in grades 3-12. Yes, students choose to be part of EE outside of the school day! Students will tell you it’s “cool” to be in these clubs. In fact, students have to apply to be in the programs because there is so much interest. At the high school level, students can even earn a varsity letter for their participation in the EcoTeam club.

Today all six of our elementary schools host an Outdoor Learning Festival each year, like the one we showcased on the Green Strides Tour. But beyond the Festivals, EE is truly “embedded” into our curriculum throughout the school day, every day. We have become the first district-wide E-STEM schools in the state of Minnesota.

Throughout all of this, our Strategic Plan has been our guide. We are grateful to the many innovative teachers who have made E-STEM a reality and for the students who are such enthusiastic learners. On the days I witness programs like the one at Edgewood, I am reminded that all big things start out small.

Dr. Sue Ann Gruver is the Superintendent of Schools for Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools in Minnesota

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