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Situating Environmental Education in an Urban School District Using Policy, Place and Partnerships: A Case Study of Washington DC Open Access

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Place-based environmental education provides myriad physical, cognitive, social, and emotional benefits. In this study, 13 environmental educators illuminated how policy, partnerships and place shaped environmental education in pre-K–12 schools in Washington, DC. I recruited participants from the local government, nongovernmental organizations, and three public and public charter schools. Place studies and Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory influenced the design of this instrumental case study. Data sources included interviews, analyses of policy documents, and observations of participants and teaching settings. Analytic memos and coding using NVivo supported data analysis. Data representation included using narratives to center participants’ voices. Participants described iteratively expanding place-based environmental education for DC students by (a) influencing and enacting policies that promote interdisciplinary engagement with the environment, (b) expanding partnerships between non-formal and formal educators, (c) enriching students’ sense of place, and (d) promoting students’ mental and physical wellbeing alongside their academic achievement. In DC, interconnected local, regional, and national policies, standards, and initiatives served as catalysts for new funding, opportunities, and partnerships. Among the most relevant were the local DC Healthy Schools Act of 2010, the regional Chesapeake Bay Agreement of 2014, and the national Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS); collectively, these documents addressed wellness, environmental protection, and science education – all areas relevant to environmental education. Multi-institutional partnerships addressed policy goals and enabled teachers to access a) professional development, b) curriculum materials, and c) place-based experiences for students in gardens and on waterways. Through a DC government-funded project, non-formal educators and mentor teachers created an environmental literacy framework that aligned existing environmental education activities with NGSS. Non-formal educators collaboratively led waterway-based fieldtrips that addressed regional efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay. Structured environmental education activities on waterways and in gardens engaged students, inspired educators, and provided links across disciplines, locations, and past experiences. Non-formal educators provided direct instruction, encouraged student inquiry, and fostered relationships with place. By contrast, few educators utilize the school building for environmental education. My findings suggest that expanding place-based environmental education requires engaging diverse stakeholders, including school custodians and others who have not traditionally been consulted as experts.

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