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Education / 2013

Education by Nature: Los Angeles

Education by Nature: Los Angeles

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by

The goal of this application is to fund the further development and expansion of the Los Angeles iteration of Education by Nature, a national model aimed at increasing STEM learning opportunities. In LA, we are focusing on bringing STEM education opportunities to underserved LA schools while cultivating scaffolded, leveraged collaboration between nonprofit organizations. By facilitating coordination among multiple nonprofit natural science education organizations, the Education by Nature: Los Angeles (ExN:LA) model links the existing science programs of multiple organizations, focuses those programs on the same classrooms, and ensures that programs build on each other. Together, ExN:LA partners deliver more hours of STEM instruction to classrooms than any one organization has the capacity to provide. ExN:LA, led locally by The Children’s Nature Institute (CNI), is now in its second successful implementation year reaching 1,260 students and 37 teachers across 2 diverse Los Angeles communities in Council Districts 1 and 4. This groundbreaking model changes the way programs are delivered to students. It shifts delivery from the traditional method of one-time, sporadic, and variable classroom services (based on individual teachers’ requests) to a strategic, comprehensive and sustainable model of educating for depth, providing a wealth of integrated high-quality programs to schools in need. We would like to expand the reach of ExN:LA to further impact the educational markers that are intrinsic to LA student success such as subject learning, overall enjoyment of learning, and environmental stewardship. We also want to learn which components of ExN:LA are specific to Los Angeles, so we can focus on developing those. An award from myLA2050 will be used to fund further model replication throughout Los Angeles Unified School District. Currently, ExN:LA focuses on young children – age 0-8 – in school, and their families, helping them all develop scientific habits of mind as required by the Common Core State Standards. As ExN:LA grows, we will expand to include programming for students of all ages. Partner curricula are vetted to be sure they capitalize on children’s innate, are in alignment with the standards and are scaffolded to specific learning objectives specified by teachers. Children learn about their environment, raising awareness about environmental issues in their communities. They develop fine motor skills and engineering mindsets by constructing their own learning tools ranging from watershed models to up-cycled paper bag forests. Children learn to ask questions and to reason through to the answers; to make observations and to communicate their thinking. They develop confidence to share ideas and to disagree constructively. This model helps teachers and students address necessary material -- both content knowledge and habits of mind – that are necessary for their ongoing success and that are specified in the Common Core. ExN:LA lessons come through the lens of environmental stewardship, and focus in part on changing and measuring behavior. By teaching students, parents and teachers to think critically about the environment and their role in it, we hope to instill in them an understanding of and love for the natural world around them. Through ExN:LA, people learn scientific facts and behaviors that will enable them to act on their own behalf and on behalf of the environment, and to see how the two are very much intertwined. Part of our ongoing evaluation will measure which lessons result in the greatest content learning and the greatest behavior changes, so we can disseminate that knowledge to our partner organizations to ensure that our environmental education partners are all utilizing best practices throughout LA. CNI is physically housed within the Magnolia Place Family Center, which is also the home of the Magnolia Community Initiative (MCI). MCI is a 70+ partner collaboration focused in the Council District 1 Pico-Union community to learn “What would it take to have the 35,000 children living in the 500 blocks of the Magnolia Catchment Area break all records of success in their education, health, and the quality of nurturing care and economic stability they receive from their families and community.” MCI is designed to galvanize the community and organize partners to neighborhood development, rather than distribute services, and fosters working in innovative ways. CNI is the “green arm” and active participant in MCI, striving to work with the community infuse environmental learning and awareness into neighborhood and family development. MCI’s initiative design has informed our guiding principles as we construct the ExN:LA collaboration. Overlaying ExN:LA to some of the schools within the Magnolia Catchment Area adds value to both models and helps us streamline, utilize best practices, and collaborate with a variety of partners and stakeholders.

What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?

CNI’s mission is to educate children, families, and their communities through interactive experiences with nature and to cultivate respect and responsibility for the natural environment. We are the only organization in Los Angeles that focuses exclusively on environmental education for young children during their most impressionable years: birth through age 8. CNI works with more than 100 schools, early-education centers and social service agencies to serve 15,000 children each year. We focus on reaching children in underserved communities to share with them the wonder of nature as a tool for academic achievement, personal growth, and community building. CNI was founded in 1985 by three mothers who were anxious to find ways to teach young children about nature outside of the classroom. We have been at the forefront of the movement to connect children with nature ever since. The organization was run by a core group of volunteers that led young families on walks at area parks and beaches. After the Los Angeles riots in 1992, motivated by the call for equity, justice and inclusion, CNI launched the outreach Nature Discovery Program to give children from low-income neighborhoods and academically low-ranking schools of Los Angeles the opportunity to learn science, math and reading skills through experiences with the natural world. In 2000, CNI added a traveling classroom called the WonderMobile to the program (a visit that includes live animals and various natural artifacts). In 2010, CNI became the “environmental arm” of the Magnolia Place Family Center. As part of the groundbreaking Magnolia Community Initiative, CNI actively collaborates within a network of more than 70 service providers to improve the quality of life, including educational outcomes, for the 100,000 people living within a 500-block radius of the Center. CNI offers a wide range of hands-on activities for families living in West Adams, Pico-Union, and the North Figueroa Corridor. These communities represent some of Los Angeles County’s most challenged neighborhoods with historically low educational access and a high rate of families living at or below the federal poverty level. We have served more than 350,000 children, their parents, and teachers in the greater Los Angeles area since we started, and show no signs of slowing down. Joining MCI gave CNI the latitude and capability to embark on the leadership role for ExN:LA, a collaboration modeled on MCI and focused on bringing continuous, high-quality environmental education to schools throughout Los Angeles. Now in its second year, ExN:LA has grown to include the entire 2nd and 3rd grades at 2 schools, 6 partner organizations and the MCI network of collaborators and community. ExN:LA is part of national Education by Nature umbrella with iterations throughout California, Hawaii and Massachusetts, each of which is designed to meet the specific needs of its community, and to share best practices and ideas with each other

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

Current ExN:LA nonprofit partners include Heal the Bay, California Science Center, Natural History Museum of LA County, reDiscover Center, EnrichLA, Gibbon Conservation Center, Farms to Preschool and Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust. Education stakeholders such as teachers, students and community members are also essential to the robust efficacy of the model. The Magnolia Community Initiative network of agencies, evaluators and community development consultants are also our partners.
The expansion to 27 more LAUSD classrooms as this proposal outlines will require us to engage 6-10 more environmental education partners. We will also continue efforts to cultivate a formal partner relationship with the LAUSD District itself.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?

Our evaluation plan includes pre- and post-tests on program efficacy. We have contracted with evaluators from UCLA, USC, and ETI Consultants to help us design and implement our evaluation goals. We want to evaluate: student experiences, and the educational value therein; student understanding and perception of their relationship with the environment; how environmental educational is intrinsic to child, family and community development; deficiencies and remediation within the collaborative models. We intend to: share all results online and at public events; provide feedback for partners and funders. Ultimately, we will move education away from achieving grades and onto learning, and show how this is especially important in very young learners.

How will your project benefit Los Angeles?

ExN:LA is a local model that meets the needs of the students, schools and communities served by the Los Angeles Unified School District. Since 1985, CNI has served over 300,000 LAUSD students with our free, outreach Nature Discovery Program and our weekly Community Nature Programs at the Magnolia Place Family Center. We know first-hand the struggles of working within such a large district and the disenfranchisement of our community. ExN:LA is built on the idea that, to improve education, LA-based nonprofit partners, teachers, students and families must work together. Evidence shows the only way to truly affect large-scale reform, whether in education, community or family development is to shift from “program delivery” to participating in a “community of practice.” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says, “When families learn together and where schools truly become the heart and center of a neighborhood – a community anchor- there are tremendous dividends for children.” ExN:LA is exactly this kind of community anchor. Lesson plans focus on local issues, including nature in LA, the interplay of the city and its waterways, growing food in schoolyards, and changing human behavior to positively impact the world around us. The children we teach are concrete learners – they understand best the things they can see and touch. Project based learning helps children understand their place in the world and develop a connection to its care. ExN:LA helps teachers expose their students to STEM-based thinking that builds future success. Opportunities include modeling of scientific logic; professional development workshops; field trips; and lesson plans aligned with state curricula. ExN:LA benefits Los Angeles by improving the educational framework at large, making STEM subjects more accessible and addressing many of the issues we’ve had teaching STEM subjects to LA’s children. A 2011 RAND study “Preschool Adequacy and Efficiency in California,” found that 40-60% of California’s 2nd and 3rd graders are not proficient in core subjects, including STEM. Larger gaps exist for socioeconomically disadvantaged groups, including Latinos, African-Americans and English language learners, the main demographics in our community. These achievement gaps have early roots: the groups who are behind in third grade were behind when they entered kindergarten.
A 2012 fact-sheet from Preschool California supports that claim, stating that early experiences –from the time children are born to the first day of kindergarten – shape whether a child’s brain develops a strong foundation for the learning, health and behavior that follow. “Early interventions for disadvantaged children are more economically efficient and produce higher returns than remedial programs to help teenagers and young adults catch up later on,” writes to James Heckman, of the University of Chicago and Nobel Laureate in Economics. ExN:LA focuses on science and nature experiences for LA’s youngest learners.

What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?

Success in the year 2050 includes all children having access to “collaborative education” that increases exposure to project based learning, outdoor enrichment, and allows them to ask and answer their own questions. Schools would be full of hands-on, age-appropriate activities, that channel children’s innate curiosity into their learning. We believe that education should teach students to “be scientists” – to be curious and to continually investigate answers to their questions – about everything around them. This should be our educational status-quo. We want to be part of bringing opportunities where they aren’t currently, in the hopes that we can help develop the resources and the community to provide for themselves. Success in 2050, for us, would include components of self-sufficiency as well as our continued presence and community building. Specifically, we would like the philosophy behind ExN:LA to have spread throughout LAUSD while other iterations of Education by Nature have spread throughout the state and the country. In this successful vision of 2050, all children have access to high quality education, and they are learning to think more critically and behave more environmentally. Schools and other education partners have learned to work collaboratively with each other and across sectors, and kids are benefiting from their efforts. Teachers – both formal and informal – are able to share best practices, while non-profit partners share resources across the board. There is trust, there is room for experimentation, there is real learning. Another indicator of success would be that Education by Nature is no longer the primary access to environmental programming for our students. We hope that our partner organizations – even the ones that do not focus on environmental education – will pick up our example and use our lessons in their own work. Whether nature hunts or walks with families, it is very easy to engage a community through the environment around them. We hope that by 2050 we will have set a clear enough example and provided enough resources that we won’t be the only ones utilizing environmental education to build our community. Finally, we’d like to see not only our students and our partners making good environmental and education decisions, but our community as well. We’d like to see the parents throughout Los Angeles have the ability, desire, and understanding to create the kinds of surroundings – educational and otherwise – for their children that they’d like. We’d like our community to make good decisions for itself, including educational and environmental ones. ExN:LA aims to teach children to think like scientists, but also to teach caregivers and guardians to gently guide children’s education. Success in 2050 would be to see real progress in each of these areas.