Modeling Environmental Literacy in Alameda, California

By Erica Wood|July 2, 2019

Ten Strands, through the California Environmental Literacy Initiative (CAELI), is currently engaged with partners in districts around the state to implement standards- and environment-based learning for all K–12 students. One of these leading-edge exemplar districts is in Alameda County, located in the Northern California Bay Area.

Alameda, an island in the San Francisco Bay, is home to over 11,000 K–12 students. Anchored in its namesake county and situated just south of Oakland, Alameda is home to much of the natural beauty peppered throughout the Bay Area. The local school district, Alameda Unified School District (AUSD), led by Superintendent Sean McPhetridge, has been hard at work on a partnership that aims to preserve that natural beauty by bringing environmental literacy to each one of its students. Ten Strands, through the California Environmental Literacy Initiative (CAELI), has invested in the district’s work. Matt Biggar, Ph.D. of Connected to Place, authored “A Case Study of the Alameda Unified School District and ChangeScale Partnership for Environmental Literacy,” which informed this article. Additional insight was provided by Inverness Research and Jedda Foreman of Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley, two of AUSD’s partners.

AUSD personnel with Sean McPhetridge and their Green Ribbon Award. Photo credit: Peter Hegarty, Bay Area News Group

It was 2009 when AUSD began thinking about the best ways to infuse environmental literacy into their core curriculum. Ten years after launching the Green Schools Challenge, the district’s first iteration of what is now known as the Alameda Unified School District Partnership for Environmental Literacy, the initiative has come to serve as a model across the state. Partnership and strong internal leadership are at the core of the program’s success.

AUSD, like many districts in the state, serves a wide variety of students from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds. The district has some advantages in terms of location that comes with being on an island—easy access to watersheds and their local ecosystems—but on the whole the location isn’t what sets this partnership apart or designates the effort as a leading-edge exemplar district.

The partnership has evolved from five schools in 2009 to a roster that now includes all district schools, several community-based organizations (including StopWaste, the county’s waste reduction agency, East Bay Regional Parks District, and Save the Bay), and support from key members of AUSD’s administration. Superintendent McPhetridge and the coordinator of secondary education, Terri Elkin, guided by the school board, provide direction and leadership. Community partners provide training and support to teachers and experiential learning to students, and the Lawrence Hall of Science has been an invaluable partner in this effort. The Hall brings its experience with the Bay Area Science Project. ChangeScale, a San Francisco and Monterey Bay Area partnership that works with environmental education organizations in those regions, served as facilitator and capacity-builder for AUSD’s environmental literacy initiative. 

As detailed in the district’s vision, the environmental literacy initiative highlights areas in the core curriculum where infusing environmental literacy capitalizes on shared opportunities for teachers, rather than layering on work and cost. FOSS (Full Option Science System) kits and science notebooks are examples of shared resources with easy crossover capabilities. The vision was brought to life after brainstorming sessions that included AUSD’s Environmental Literacy Leadership Team and other district stakeholders. The group then solidified the vision through the creation of three main tenets: 

  1. environmental education is essential;
  2. environmental education is engaging; and
  3. environmental education needs to be equitable. 

Their vision culminates with the goal of 40 annual hours of outdoor learning for all AUSD students and the infusion of all programing with environmental literacy, making it an organic piece of the educational experience.

Leadership is a key component in AUSD’s efforts. In particular, participants note the importance of shared leadership, and how the school board and Superintendent McPhetridge have spearheaded the effort with inclusive direction. Analysis conducted by Inverness Research shows that strong leadership has been essential to the success of this partnership. Without the superintendent’s willingness to take the initiative, forge partnerships outside of the district, designate a high level of autonomy to players without prior environmental literacy experience, and continually assess for barriers and workarounds to those barriers, AUSD would not have moved the needle this far. 

“The superintendent’s influence was one of the most important things. To have leadership at the district level is fundamental.” ~District parent

Mr. McPhetridge echoes the importance of involving representatives from each stakeholder group in making informed decisions, calling it “a team effort involving kids, families, teachers, custodians, district office leaders, and, ultimately, the Board of Education.” Highlights of those leadership efforts include expertise aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and other curriculum standards, and a more efficient field trip approval process.

For all of its successes, the AUSD initiative hasn’t been without challenges. Equity, logistics, communication, and teacher overload are the main challenges facing the partnership. Possible solutions, such as offering a shared research brief for classroom teachers and an online portal for parent–teacher communication around getting students outside of the classroom are up for consideration. Parents acknowledge that a large part of the equity equation hinges on parental involvement by individual school. Partnership leaders are working to close the equity gap by pairing schools with more involved parents with those with shortages in available parent support.

                            Students at the Bay School’s outdoor learning center.                           Photo credit: Bay Farm School

The stakeholders involved understand that many of the successes and corresponding challenges facing this initiative may be unique to Alameda. Still, there is certainty in the model available to neighboring districts and beyond. While the relatively small size of the district is important to the program’s success, it also prevents some would-be partners from joining. Often, a smaller school population is perceived as a less relevant level of impact. To address the challenge of finding willing partners, the district held an evening reception for community stakeholders. The partnerships with StopWaste and East Bay Regional Park District came out of that self-generated opportunity.

The partnership is facing perhaps its biggest test to date with the impending departure of Superintendent McPhetridge. As Ms. Foreman of Lawrence Hall of Science noted, Mr. McPhetridge’s departure will provide the district with the opportunity to see just how embedded the program is in the culture. She, like other participants, has faith in what they have built and in the continuing leadership. She is also positive in the face of change, conveying optimism in future leadership.

All students deserve the opportunity to learn in and about their natural environments from teachers who are well prepared and equipped to impart these critical lessons. We at Ten Strands are excited to continue supporting essential work like that at AUSD, to amplify their successes, and to share lessons learned from these invaluable experiences. 

Erica Wood
This article was written by Erica Wood

Erica Wood is a freelance grant writer living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In addition to her work for Ten Strands, she has written for NatureBridge, ChangeScale, Pisces Foundation, and numerous other nonprofit organizations.