Prioritizing Environmental Literacy to Achieve District Goals

By Tony Knight, EdD|February 6, 2018

This week’s blog post is written by Tony Knight, EdD, Superintendent of the Oak Park Unified School District and Environmental Literacy Steering Committee (ELSC) member. About his district, Dr. Knight writes:

The Oak Park Unified School District is a place for children to grow, where they will be valued and honored and be educated in a tradition of excellence and quality that is unsurpassed in public schools in California. We often refer to our schools in Oak Park as being world-class. To me, a world-class education engages students using a blend of the latest technology with more traditional experiences such as gardening, performing in a play, singing, painting, and building things. We also say that we educate the ‘whole child.’ This means we offer a program where our students learn in a climate of care exemplified by our extensive counseling programs that nurture their mental health and wellbeing, the food we serve them in the cafeteria, the cleanliness of the air in the classrooms, our new and modern facilities, the supervision we provide, and, most importantly, through the people that educate and care for our students each day. Oak Park is a District of Choice as designated by our Board of Education under provisions of state law and we also accept students under traditional permits from surrounding districts. The addition of students from surrounding communities has increased our diversity and our excellence.

Dr. Knight recently participated in a session at the Association of California School Administrators Superintendents’ Symposium (ACSA) alongside ELSC members Anne Campbell and Dr. Tim Baird as part of raising awareness around the benefits of environmental literacy for California students.

One of the goals of the ELSC is outreach to school leaders across the state. Presenting a session and hosting a reception at the ACSA Superintendents’ Symposium in Monterey allowed us a unique opportunity to engage with leaders representing 600 school districts in California.

The event was held at the newly remodeled Monterey Conference Center on January 24–26, and our session was entitled Environmental Literacy as an Engaging Context to Achieve District Goals. Our presentation featured five superintendents talking about how school districts can be transformed—not with ‘add-on’ programs or a focus solely on facilities, but through an authentic, culturally relevant, and engaging context for students centering around a climate of care for both children and the world they are inheriting. This context sets the tone for how children learn to solve problems, work together, use innovative strategies, and treat each other with dignity and respect.  

After introductory comments by our moderator San Mateo County Superintendent Anne Campbell, my fellow superintendents Cuauhtémoc Avila, EdD (Rialto USD), Sean McPhetridge, EdD (Alameda USD), and Tim Baird, EdD (Encinitas USD) and I shared how the story of environmental literacy is playing out in our district communities. There was power in the variety of school districts presenting, representing California’s diverse regions and student populations. Each presentation focused on the vision and drivers of this work in the context of the three pillars of Curriculum, Campus, and Community.

Dr. Avila’s district, located in San Bernardino County, serves over 25,000 students—80% of whom qualify for free or reduced meals. In his district, the CARES curriculum (Cultivating Active Responsible Environmental Stewards) spirals from K–12, with newly UC-approved ‘real-world lens’ courses available to students at the high school level. Zen gardens, walking school buses (groups of children walking to school with one or more adults), and a community gym at the district office are just a few examples of how this work is well-connected to student and staff wellness. Click here for more information from his featured display poster.  

Dr. McPhetridge, of the 11,000+ student Alameda USD, highlighted the fact that his Bay Area district is one of only two NOAA Ocean Guardian school districts. The district invests in teacher professional learning through teacher institutes focused on environmental education, helping teachers incorporate California’s Environmental Principles & Concepts into their classrooms. The district’s work started with garbage, which we discovered was a common starting place on this journey. Precise records are kept on landfill diversion rates, and this information is readily shared with school sites along with the quantified cost savings. Aspects of the student nutrition program are also being addressed, including the elimination of plastics—an important topic for this bayside community. Click here for more information from his featured display poster.  

Dr. Baird is the superintendent of the Encinitas USD near San Diego which serves 5,300 students grades K–6. This district is best known in environmentally-focused circles for all of its school sites being solar-powered, and for its 10-acre Farm Lab—an educational farm where most of the food produced is for the student nutrition program. The Farm Lab is the first certified organic school farm in the nation. Children learn to prepare and cook the food they grow, which encourages them to eat foods they might not otherwise be interested in. Encinitas students regularly present to the local school board and the community about their work related to stormwater runoff and rainwater collection. Walking school buses and yoga instruction round out a complete wellness program. Click here for more information from his featured display poster.   

I talked about Oak Park USD, a 4,600-student suburban district located in Ventura County, and our vision and values related to environmental education and practices. Oak Park was named the first National Green Ribbon School District in California in 2013. Since then, the district has continued to innovate and expand in practices, construction, and education. In September we cut ‘green’ ribbons on six new solar installations, purchased with bond funds, that will save the schools over $400,000 a year in electrical costs. The student nutrition program features more plant-based meals because research shows that livestock production is responsible for at least 15–20% of our greenhouse gas problem. Learning to eat closer to the earth by growing food in proximity to where it is consumed is a true 21st-century skill in a world where our population will grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, and where more and more wild places are being taken over for agricultural purposes. Oak Park was the first district to install classrooms fabricated from cargo containers, and we will be using these for all new modernization projects. Click here for more information from my featured display poster.     

Superintendent Anne Campbell articulated San Mateo County’s Environmental Literacy Initiative, which is a model for the county level. There is a strong focus on teacher professional learning and support, as well as awards and recognition programs, student summits, and outdoor education. Support, connection, and consistency are offered to schools in San Mateo County to integrate sustainability into all aspects of school life. Click here for more information from her featured display poster.      

At the evening reception, we were excited to welcome State Superintendent Tom Torlakson, who spoke about the importance of the work of the ELSC and asked a few of us to talk about the work going on in our school districts. Posters representing the initiatives in the five presenting districts were on display as conversation-starters designed to pique interest and spark questions, and they certainly fulfilled that function!

On a personal note, I learned a great deal from the presentations of the other superintendents. I felt a unique sense of purpose and joy from each of us about our schools and the students, families, and communities we serve. This is truly transformational work that permeates many other aspects of the educational experience.


Tony Knight, EdD
This article was written by Tony Knight, EdD

Tony Knight, EdD, is superintendent of the Oak Park Unified School District and adjunct professor of education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. He has served as a public school teacher and administrator for 38 years. Under Dr. Knight’s leadership, Oak Park Unified School District was named the first U.S. Green Ribbon School District in California, one of a handful in the nation recognized for commitment to environmental education and sustainable practices. He is an underwater photographer interested in ocean conservation issues, and serves on the NOAA Channel Islands National Martine Sanctuary Advisory Council. Dr. Knight is an environmentalist and animal welfare advocate. He and his wife enjoy traveling and exploring the world, especially areas set aside for conservation.