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Boreal Community Media

A focus on environmental education at Great Expectations School

Oct 12, 2021 06:02AM ● By Editor

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By Rae Poynter, Contributing Writer - Exclusive to Boreal Community Media - October 12, 2021

Just off the Gunflint Trail in the town of Grand Marais sits Great Expectations School, a small school building surrounded by woods and home to a student body of around 120 students. One of three K-8 charter schools in Cook County, education at Great Expectations School (GES) includes a focus on environmental learning, with students growing in their awareness of the local environment and environmental issues, and developing the skills necessary to be able to take action. 

It has been almost 30 years since the nation’s first charter schools opened in Minnesota. Charter schools, which are free, public schools, were developed to allow educators more autonomy and freedom, and to offer parents more choices for their children’s education. In exchange for greater independence, charter schools have additional layers of oversight. As GES director Rachael Lehman described, charter schools must be overseen by an authorizer to ensure the school is meeting the goals in its contract, or charter. 

GES’s authorizer is Osprey Wilds, an environmental learning center whose mission is “to instill a connection and commitment to the environment in people of all communities through experiential learning.” Being authorized by Osprey Wilds means that GES agrees to meet certain environmental education goals each school year, goals which center on helping students understand the relationship between the environment and human activity, and to be able to take action on environmental issues.

“We created an environmental literacy plan for Osprey Wilds,” Lehman said. “They have a continuum of goals starting at awareness and moving to knowledge, attitudes, skills, and finally to action. Each year the staff decides where each classroom is at and creates measurable goals. Each classroom doesn’t have to have a goal for each indicator in the continuum, but each classroom has to be involved in the plan.”

To help meet these goals, GES has hired an Environmental Education Coordinator, Emma Adams. Adams joined the GES team at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, and will be splitting her time between being providing environmental education and working as a classroom paraprofessional. With a background in Environmental Education & Interpretation, Adams moved to Cook County in the summer of 2021 to work at Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center. When she was offered the job at GES, she was thrilled at the opportunity to stay in the community and expand her skills in new ways.

“I really liked the area and wanted to stay,” Adams said. “Prior to this I’ve worked in zoos, non-profits, community centers, and the school setting.”

With the goals of Great Expectations’ charter in mind, Adams works in partnership with the classroom teachers to develop immersive and hands-on lesson plans. Some of examples of recent environmental education activities have included working with the Beavers (2nd grade) class to plant lettuce for the farm-to-school program - where the lettuce will eventually be picked to use in school lunches - and taking the Bear Cubs (kindergarten) class to the school apple orchard to learn about apples and apple picking. 

“We went around and sampled all of the varieties of apples, and worked on describing how they tasted,” Adams said. “We talked about how apples come in different colors, and that while some varieties are red, other varieties are different colors so you can’t always rely on the color to tell if it’s ripe. Then they each got to pick apples and brought them back to their classroom to peel, core and make apple sauce.”

Since a healthy environment is an integral component of a healthy community, Great Expectations’ environmental goals are woven together with the goal for each student to become a contributing member to both the school and the larger community. 

“Our goals start with an appreciating and understanding of the community and environment that you’re in, and some of our goals include connecting to our community here at the school specifically,” Adams said.

One way this works practically is that each classroom is given an environmental-related task over which they have full responsibility for the year. The Otters (7th and 8th grades) have the responsibility of collecting compostable waste and maintaining compost piles, while the Lynx (5th and 6th grades) are in charge of the school’s recycling, including collecting the recycling from each classroom and educating the other classes on what is and is not recyclable. Meanwhile the Wolves (4th and 5th grades) are in charge of picking up trash from around the school grounds. With these tasks, students not only become experts in their given tasks, but develop a sense of ownership and a desire to keep the building and grounds clean for the school community.

As students progress through the years at GES, they will have many opportunities to grow in their environmental awareness, knowledge, attitudes, skills, and action, from collecting data about birds found on the school grounds to helping identify and eradicate invasive plants. The hope is for these opportunities, combined with time spent enjoying the woods and Lake Superior’s shores, to help cultivate a deep love and respect for the environment in our next generation, and by extension, a healthy community.

Rae Poynter is a Grand Marais freelance writer with a background in communication sciences. Apart from writing, she enjoys travel, dance, and exploring the outdoors with her 13 year-old husky.