PNW BOCES: A Regional Approach to EfS

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In previous blog posts, we’ve featured stories about schools or districts across the country that have integrated EfS into their curriculum.  Today, we’d like to tell you about Putnam and Northern Westchester Board of Cooperative Educational Services (PNW BOCES), a regional education agency whose innovative approach to EfS is worth exploring.

New York State’s PNW BOCES is a regional collaborative serving approximately 60,000 pre-K through 12th graders in 18 school districts.  In 2008, the PNW BOCES Curriculum Center undertook the development of a K-12 web-based Education for Sustainability curriculum to address the question, “How are we all going to live well within the means of nature?” The curriculum development project was a multi-year undertaking that included capacity building for administrators to lead in this area as well as support for teams of teachers to develop the cutting edge sustainability education curriculum. To implement the project, PNW BOCES assembled a diverse group of sustainability, curriculum design, and instructional technology experts to work with the educators in involved in the project.

A region learns the rules of the road

Dorna L. Schroeter,  Program Coordinator, Center for Environmental Education at PNW BOCES, was an early advocate for this regional approach to sustainability education. “EfS is framed around the operating systems of the planet,” she explained. “If we want to continue to live here, we have to learn the rules of the road.” Years before this project was conceived,  Dorna connected with Jaimie Cloud at a conference.  Recognizing a shared passion, they began to look for an opportunities to work together.  When PNW BOCES began thinking about a regional sustainability education project (prompted by a former Superintendent turned municipal leader),  Dorna knew the timing was right.  She recommended Jaimie as the expert that could  lead the ambitious effort. From 2007-12 , Jaimie provided support for the project in the form of curriculum design and mapping, framework development,  planning, and professional development and coaching.

The first year of curriculum writing focused on creating units for Grades 6 – 8. During the summer of 2008, over 100 middle school educators from seventeen districts, worked together to draft a multidisciplinary sustainability education curriculum in ELA, social studies, math, science and the arts. Each grade level chose an essential question to drive inquiry across the disciplines. These essential questions were based on the teachers’ work with Jaimie and addressed the Cloud Institute’s EfS Core Content Standards. Once the units were developed by the teachers, they were refined by expert curriculum and sustainability consultants and placed on the web for teacher-writers to pilot during the year. The teachers returned in the spring to provide feedback so that pilot curriculum units could be enhanced. In 2009-2010, the cycle continued with sustainability education units created for grades K-5 and in 2011-12, the curriculum was completed with the creation of the 9 - 12 grade units. Hundreds of teachers, content experts and curriculum developers participated in this five year initiative.

A beautiful set of interdisciplinary curriculum units emerge

The result? A set of exemplary interdisciplinary EfS curriculum units complete with lessons is designed to challenge students to invent their future-- all within the context of their existing curricula in math, English language arts, science, social studies and the arts. The project incorporated the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects and insured consistency between units both vertically and horizontally.  

Schroeter points to a student led action as one of the highlights of the project.  While reflecting on  a unit exploring “The Commons”,  students wondered about the discarded pencils seen on the floor of the school each day.  By studying the life cycle of pencils, the students recognized that the abandoned pencils were made of wood,  and they led a school wide effort to eliminate pencils from the waste stream. “ I love that it came from students,” states Schroeter.  “Because it came from the kids, it was  valued by the whole school community.” This project became known as “Pencils: A Classroom Commons” and is described in one of PNW BOCES many EfS podcasts.  

You’ve built it, now will they come?

As Jaimie often says, “This work is not instant orange juice.”  We know it’s not easy.  From juggling competing priorities to dealing with mixed messages at home,  creating and sustaining an integrated EfS program can seem like an uphill battle.  Ten years ago, PNW BOCES defied the odds by building exemplary EfS curriculum units for the region and beyond. Organizers got the buy-in from school administrators through professional development and critical conversations.  They found teachers who had a passion for sustainability or who were curious about it, and they encouraged their peers to join in.  Once the curriculum was completed, a sustained effort would be needed to keep it relevant and current.  “Now that we have the curriculum, the challenge is that it needs to be updated and cross walked with Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core,” explained Schroeter.  “A continuous improvement model ensures that the units remain at the cutting edge of content and instruction. This requires the dedication of further time and resources.”  She worries that the current focus on standardized testing is impacting the region’s focus on EfS, lamenting, “Common Core came along and all these evaluations.  We’re not currently doing as much EfS as I had hoped.”

Extending sustainability education from the classroom to the real world requires an enduring commitment by the school community. It’s not only the students that need educating. Most adults have not considered their role in creating a sustainable future and may make family choices that conflict with what is being  learned by their children in school.  Schroeter described, “From the kids to the teachers to the parents and administrators, it has to be a total buy-in. The school really is a community and if you are doing something at school, it has to be reflected at home.”

Now more than ever

PNW BOCES’ commitment to building its comprehensive EfS curriculum is clear.  Years of hard work, resources and passion have gone into creating these exemplary units.  Like many, they struggle to maintain the momentum of a truly integrated effort.  PNW BOCES does have sustained curriculum initiatives to use as precedents--The SS/ELA Project and the Science 21 Project have both stood the test of time and enjoyed continuous improvement by teachers and curriculum developers over time. We look forward to watching how the project evolves over the next ten years.  As we make our way to the future we want, Regional EfS programs like this one have an  important role to play.  We can take to heart the words of Albert Einstein when he said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”

Learn more about the work and download sample lessons for all grade levels across disciplines on the PNW BOCES Education for Sustainability website .