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Apr 162009

By Carol Soneklar
Green Right Now

Although every teacher and student at Green Woods Charter School will be devoting themselves to a full day of environmental service this Earth Day, in reality, it’s pretty much like any other day at the school.

The only public charter school in the country that is located inside a nature center-Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education and its surrounding 350 acres in Philadelphia-Green Woods uses environmental and ecological concepts to drive the development of its curriculum and instruction.

Environmental education became serious in 2001, when the state legislature passed the Pennsylvania Academic Standards for Environment and Ecology, the only such standards in the country. It also left schools scrambling for new curricula to meet the standards. Jean Wallace, who had a degree in environmental education from Arcadia University and was working as a curriculum developer at Earth Force, a nonprofit organization, was suddenly deluged with requests for materials.

“Working with hundreds of schools, I could see that principals and teachers just weren’t getting behind the new standards from a leadership perspective,” she recalls. “I kept hearing, ‘I just don’t see the point of devoting instructional time to environmental study, or ‘I’m sure these standards aren’t here to stay.’”

Wallace could see that most schools were not using the standards for the rich opportunity they presented. So when she learned that Green Woods had an opening for a curriculum coordinator, she jumped at the chance.

But there was a small glitch: Green Woods had no curriculum, she discovered. So Wallace and her team set about creating one.

“Yes, it was a Herculean task but also an incredible opportunity,” says Wallace, now the CEO and Academic Director for Green Woods. “We had a clean slate and that gave our teachers tremendous creativity. We could really focus on how we knew students learned best.”

Kindergarten through fourth grade focuses on the basics, including studying four different ecosystems, using four of the center’s ponds. The program encompasses in-depth study of seed dispersal, insects and wildlife of the field, weather patterns, the forest ecosystems, migrating birds, and much more.

The fourth grade is the “bridge” year, where students transition from a focus on local environment to a global perspective, including an in-depth look at the Kyoto Protocol.

Sixth, seventh, and eighth grades branch out further, studying science, literature, and history within an ecological context.