County offices of education are succeeding in expanding access to environmental learning

As the impacts of climate change continue to impact school communities, the physical health of children and their quality of life, it is critical that county offices of education take steps to promote education in environmental literacy, resiliency and sustainability, according to a report from the California Environmental Literacy Initiative.

“Environmental Literacy County Office of Education Leadership Case Studies,” released March 31, illustrates how two COEs in Orange and San Mateo counties “broke new ground in environmental literacy and sustainability leadership in ways that are already improving the lives of the students and other residents of their communities.”

Andra Yehogian, environmental literacy coordinator at the San Mateo COE, said in a companion webinar to the report that COEs play an important role within California’s massive K-12 system, and would be the easiest to invest in if the state wants the biggest bang for its buck in kickstarting environmental programming.

“We really need county offices to be involved in this work, and that’s because county offices can be a real big catalyst for change. California’s a really big system — we’ve got 6.2 million kids, 300,000 teachers, over 10,000 schools and 1,000 districts. So, that’s a lot of different layers,” Yehogian said. “When you look at all that and you see there’s 58 county offices, you might think, ‘OK, that’s the smallest number, so let’s make some investment there.’ But not only is it the smallest number, and therefore much easier to invest in, the county offices play this incredibly supportive role for all of the districts, schools, teachers and students that are embedded within their region.”

COEs are uniquely positioned to apply a systems approach to integrating real-world sustainability and climate resiliency resources, professional learning and the necessary instructional and fiscal supports, she said.

Some COEs already undergoing this work can serve as examples of best practices when it comes to expanding access to environmental literacy curriculum and developing more informed and empowered youth through interdisciplinary, solutions-oriented curriculum.

San Mateo COE green career education expansion

San Mateo COE has begun working closely with local community-based partners to provide technical assistance in facilities and operations through a regional Sustainable and Climate Ready Schools Partnership Network. Additionally, county officials have sought to deepen their understanding of various industry sectors with a a long-term vision of integrating sustainability into college and career readiness and career technical education. Beginning in middle school, students are beginning to learn about potential “green careers.”

According to interviews included in the case study, momentum is building. “Leaders from the youth and adult capacity-building programs have been championing transformative change across their districts. In some districts, the passion for change has translated into fee-for-services contracts with districts for environmental sustainability and climate-resilient services, such as comprehensive baseline assessment and strategic planning, as well as technical assistance on green facilities and professional learning for solutionary, project-based learning,” researchers found.

District leaders are now beginning to see environmental literacy as a core competency to address real-world challenges on and off of campus, and more are engaging with sustainable and climate-resilient facilities efforts.

Orange County Department of Education whole child approaches

There was an early and natural alignment between the ways in which environmental literacy factor into whole child development and ongoing initiatives, such as OCDE’s statewide leadership on California’s Multi-Tiered System of Supports. In a guest post for Ten Strands — a non-profit that advocates for raising environmental literacy by providing high-quality environment-based learning and hands-on education to all California K–12 students — OCDE Superintendent Al Mijares wrote that local educational agencies are “missing out on opportunities to nurture brain development and strengthen mental health when we close ourselves off from nature.”

To further promote outdoor education, OCDE is continuing to conduct a “landscape analysis” to better understand the needs of students and teachers in its districts. County officials told researchers that to ensure the long-term success of these programs, environmental literacy must be viewed as a core competency that can withstand changes in leadership and other potential challenges.

Key findings

While there is no cookie-cutter approach to environmental literacy and sustainability programs, the report cited several key findings that emerged across both case studies. These include:

  • Developing a shared vision — In both COEs, the guiding vision continues to be the creation of equitable access to environment-based educational opportunities for every student in the county. With the support of district and county leadership, environmental literacy coordinators, other staff and regional partners, COEs can significantly level the playing field for environmental literacy.
  • Family and community engagement — After establishing what local families want and need from these programs, COEs can develop and expand partnerships with environmental education organizations and diverse community partners and agencies that are essential to increasing access to local high-quality environmentally focused outdoor learning experiences for students who have previously lacked access.
  • Resource management — Environmental literacy coordination may begin as an instructional initiative, but coordinators will benefit from investment in cross-training and explicit supportive collaboration with staff overseeing other related functions.