Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the Environmental Literacy Leadership Summit at George Mason University’s Potomac Science Center. The goal of this Summit was to bring together leaders from states throughout the Chesapeake Bay region and the District of Columbia to discuss the role of K-12 educators in meeting the goals of the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. It was an inspiring day, and strengthened my drive to enhance environmental literacy efforts in local schools and communities throughout the Commonwealth.
The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) defines environmental literacy as having the knowledge, skills and dispositions to solve problems and resolve issues individually and collectively that sustain ecological, economic and social stability. This is our goal for all students in Virginia. VDOE is committed to providing every student with a Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience (MWEE) in elementary, middle, and high school, and continues to work to ensure our schools become examples of sustainability for our communities. We do this by working to embed environmental literacy into the curriculum and operations of our school districts, aspiring to reach each and every student with hands-on, outdoor experiences, and investing in professional development to equip teachers to be active facilitators for this deeper learning.
But not all of our schools are located near the Chesapeake Bay, and not all of our students have the opportunity to visit the Bay. Equity is a cornerstone of VDOE’s vision for education in the Commonwealth, so we must consider our efforts to enhance environmental literacy through an equity lens. Equity means we meet the needs of each child, where they are, when they need it, in order to succeed. The same MWEE or environmental literacy program would not have the same impact for students in Henrico schools as it may have on a small school on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Fairfax City and Richmond City may need different financial and human resources to get their students to the same level of environmental literacy. It is imperative that equitable access to resources are shared throughout the Commonwealth and in each of the states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, no matter the distance from the Bay. Our culturally relevant curricula and equitable programming is essential to prepare every student to be a good steward of the environment.
The future health of our Commonwealth will be determined by the decisions we make now and by the students who will inherit this responsibility as they matriculate out of our school communities. This takes all of us. It takes teachers who are willing to put in time and effort to create a culturally relevant environmental education curriculum that will appeal to a diverse student body. It takes principals who notice and encourage teachers that provide deeper learning opportunities and MWEEs for their students. It takes superintendents and school boards who strive to ensure ALL students have access to a robust environmental education that includes field experiences, opportunities for stewardship, and workplace experience. It takes state leaders who are willing to create flexible funding streams that promote equitable environmental learning experiences and allow us to tailor programs to the needs of our local schools.
Whether you are a principal, superintendent, school board member, parent, teacher, or student… your advocacy, investment, and support is necessary in this process. There is always room for growth and advancement and we believe we can never do too much to ensure that our youngest citizens are able to protect the future of the environment.