A Chat with Sarah Delaney, San Francisco Unified's Ecoliteracy SpecialistJanuary 30th, 2013
Intern Clara MacLeod interviewed Sarah Delaney, SFUSD's ecoliteracy content specialist, about how the district is forging ahead with outdoor education, professional development, field trips, and the connections to broader green school initiatives.
Green Schools Initiative: What is your role at San Francisco Unified School District?
Sarah Delaney: My title is ecoliteracy content specialist. My job expectation is that I'm responsible for infusing the curriculum with ecoliteracy learning across the grades from pre-k to 12th grade. I serve all the teachers in the district. Right now I'm in the process of building resources that can be shared by teachers across the district. I have a website - www.greenthenextgen.org - that is a hub of information about field trips, professional development, curriculum, and student opportunities around science, sustainability and stewardship. Those resources are accessible to everyone, but most likely relevant to Bay Area residents.
SD: I myself don't organize field trips, but I do provide resources for teachers to use to organize field trips like the one I mentioned already. I also have a small grant program where teachers can request funds to go on field trips. In the future, I want to give teachers the ability and skill to lead their own local field trips, like going to the nearest park and taking their students to a nearby garden.
GSI: In your opinion, how does environmental literacy fit with green schools?
SD: The purpose for greening schools and the positive outcomes that come along with it ties into protecting and appreciating our natural resources and our environment. We know that a green building is only as green as the people inside of it. Ecoliteracy means building a certain level of appreciation for the environment and an understanding of all the natural systems that encourages people to participate in the green behaviors that shape a green school.
GSI: How do you measure success in terms of ecoliteracy?
SD: Currently, we define an ecoliterate student as one who has three things, known as the three 'A's'. The first 'A' is awareness. Ecoliterate students have an awareness of the principles that govern natural systems. They are also aware of the impacts humans have on those natural systems, understanding the food system or the carbon cycle or geology. The second 'A' is having an appreciation for their local environment. And the third 'A' is advocacy, which entails taking personal action to improve the local and global environment. We are still developing what we mean by student proficiency in ecoliteracy and how we can best scaffold that learning across the grades. So, going forward, we are working on how to measure and evaluate ecoliteracy proficiency.
GSI: What are the SFUSD's goals?
SD: There is a combination of the city's goals and our public utility's emission and ecology goals that are helping to inform our district's goals and what is happening at the schools. We are focused on having every school have a waste diversion rate of 85% (diverting 85% of school waste away from the landfill through recycling and composting). We also think about commuting, trying to limit the number of cars with only one family to 25% of our students by 2020. The other thing we look at is energy use. Our Shared Savings Program incentivizes schools to reduce their utility use by giving them a cut of any savings generated. When it comes to our goals for what students experience, that is what my position is all about and what I work towards. I build that awareness in our students. Since my position is new, we are still working to develop specific goals for ecoliteracy.
GSI: What kinds of success have you had so far with Green Schools and Eco-Literacy in SFUSD?
SD: Our diversion rate has continuously climbed from 38% to 60% over the past five years. Last year we reduced our utility usage by 8.5%. Our current mode share for solo car commuters is 48%. In ten elementary schools we have Education Outside Corps members who support their schools in taking advantage of the learning opportunities in the outdoor classrooms and also advance sustainability work.
GSI: What district-wide or school-specific projects are planned for this school year?
SD: A lot of projects! Currently I'm gathering a group of teachers and identifying leaders to brainstorm ideas about where ecoliteracy fits in with the general curriculum. So how to naturally weave it in that way it's not a big burden or extra commitment. These ideas will then be shared with other teachers. Another is to have an ecoliteracy conference for our teachers in the spring where there will be workshops about different ways to integrate environmental literacy into the curriculum. We're doing a lot of professional development and working closely with our partners to get everyone on the same page, including the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco Botanical Garden, Aquarium of the Bay, the Exploratorium, and many more. We are lucky in San Francisco because we have so many amazing resources right here in terms of museums, parks, and gardens! We are also hoping to create eco-hero awards for students, teachers, administrators, custodians, and community members.
GSI: Has participation from students, parents, and staff in environmental projects increased? If so, what inspired/motivated people to participate?
SD: I don't have any raw data to share, but I would say there has definitely been a clear trend of increasing involvement. School communities are increasingly interested in having their schools be green. The Proposition A Bond initiatives, which were passed by San Francisco voters in 2003, 2006, and 2011, as part of school bond measures, secured $12 million for schoolyard greening for all elementary schools and 10 middle and high schools within SFUSD. This helped start a discussion regarding outdoor education. In general, many of our parents are parent community members and are already into the idea of green schools. Our teachers have bought in to as well. There is a lot of interest that is guided by the teachers, which is then carried home by the students and then transferred to the parents. So the inspiration goes both ways - school to home and home to school.
GSI: What has been the greatest challenge the district has faced (participation, funding, etc)? How do you help over it?
SD: The biggest challenge is time. Teachers are overworked and they have a lot of demands placed on them. They have a lot of pressure to increase test scores, involve students in p.e., art, and science, so all of these demands take up a lot of time. The biggest challenge is convincing teachers that ecoliteracy can be infused in the curriculum and it doesn't have to be a burden. One key thing is to make teachers realize that ecoliteracy is important. I am encouraging teachers to use the environment as a context for integrating learning. Rather than making it sound like another thing that they have to add on, I am providing examples of rich integrated learning that addresses environmental problems while also supporting learning based on Common Core state standards. I am providing real examples of how to bring in an ecoliteracy focus by collecting and sharing "Stories from the Field" that highlight this integrated learning about the environment.
GSI: How is SFUSD funding its Green Schools and Ecoliteracy efforts?
SD: We have received support from City agencies and private foundations. Utility partners like the SF Public Utility Commission and SF Environment Department have a strong interest in reducing stormwater flows as well as water and energy use. They cover Nik Kaestner's Director of Sustainability position and budget. Private, charitable foundations cover our ecoliteracy efforts, including my position and budget, as well as the Education Outside Corps.
GSI: What advice do you have for other schools and districts seeking to "green" their schools? Are there any resources or websites to recommend? SD: My advice would be to start at the heart of it all, which is to get outside and develop a relationship with nature, especially at the young grades. Rather than starting with 'the world is going to end and the polar bears are going to die' and humans' impact on the environment, get students outside so they develop an appreciate for nature and are willing to protect and fight for it.
GSI: Thank you, Sarah, for taking the time to tell us about SFUSD's great efforts to support green schools and environmental literacy!
SD: You are so welcome. Thanks for sharing our experiences with other schools.