Community Agriculture Alliance: Supporting environmental education

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Sonja Macys

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead

Processes of social and cultural change driven by ordinary people can have extraordinary impacts. When a diverse group of people come together around a common cause, the results can be remarkable. Such is the story of the Colorado Environmental Education Plan.

In 2010, our state legislature, motivated by the potential for systemic change in our education system, charged the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Education with creating a statewide environmental education plan. Many other states took the same initiative, responding to the No Child Left Inside Act, federal legislation that would enhance environmental literacy between kindergarten and 12th grade and make environmental education a part of our public schools’ curricula. The act, originally introduced in 2008, never has passed both the House and Senate, yet it already has had a profound influence on environmental education across the country. For states to be eligible for funding to advance environmental literacy, they must have an environmental literacy plan adopted by the state education department. During the past few years, 14 states, including Colorado, have passed environmental literacy plans and are implementing them. Eleven more have completed their plans, and the rest are in the process of developing them. These plans are locally developed frameworks for effective inclusion of environmental education in the classroom.

In Routt County, all three school districts’ elementary schools are participating in environmental literacy programs and have been for the past three years. Yampatika staff served on the statewide Environmental Literacy Plan Committee while simultaneously developing these programs, thereby ensuring seamless integration when the Colorado plan is implemented. Many of us have been waiting impatiently for that implementation.

Adopted in December 2012, the state plan called for the establishment of a Colorado Environmental Education Leadership Council to oversee implementation of the plan. In assembling the council, the Department of Natural Resources, Department of Education and Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education sought participation from diverse sectors of society (such as industry, education and nonprofit) and from all reaches of the state. The council on which I serve began its work Aug. 21, 2013. While many Yampa Valley residents were celebrating the arrival of the USA Pro Challenge here in Steamboat Springs, I was celebrating the kickoff of implementation of the Colorado Environmental Literacy Plan.

Keeping Northwest Colorado at the forefront of environmental literacy has required local leadership and investment. Routt County school districts, from teachers to administrators, have demonstrated both. We are fortunate to be building upon decades of tradition in which our schools incorporate the outdoors into the classroom and vice versa. Sustained local investments from the Steamboat Springs Education Fund Board, Routt County Board of Commissioners and Yampa Valley Community Foundation, to name a few, have leveraged state and federal grants in support of the effort.

On July 16, No Child Left Inside was reintroduced with bipartisan support in the Senate and the House. We appreciate Sen. Michael Bennet’s leadership on this issue. Just this week, he announced he will be co-sponsoring the act. As we move forward in 2013, we would appreciate seeing similar leadership and investment from other representatives in Washington, D.C. Sen. Mark Udall has signed on to environmental education legislation in the past. This would be Rep. Scott Tipton’s first show of support.

With so many things to do this fall, why bother contacting your elected officials about environmental education? Because environmental education works. Independent evaluation has shown, year after year, that students who participate in Yampatika’s environmental literacy program show a significant increase in content knowledge. These same students show marked improvement in critical thinking, cooperation and conflict resolution — all 21st century skills that our schools aim to impart.

To reach your elected officials, please call these numbers or visit their websites:

Sen. Udall: 877-768-3255

Rep. Tipton: 202-225-4761

Sonja Macys is the executive director of Yampatika and a member of the Colorado Environmental Education Leadership Council. She can be reached at sonja@yampatika.org.

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