2008 Building Community Award

Each year through the Building Community through Rural Education Award, CREC and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools (PARSS) recognize a rural school or district that has distinguished itself through innovative practices contributing to the educational experiences for the students served, while collaborating with the broader community for the benefit of all. On Friday, April 25, 2008 CREC, in partnership with PARSS, awarded its fourth annual Building Community through Rural Education award at the PARSS Annual Meeting in State College . This year the award went to the St. Marys Area Middle School for their Environmental Learning Center initiative. Portage Area School District and Galeton Area School District received Honorable Mention awards in recognition of their school-community initiatives.

award_2008_StMarys - group of people holding the award
ST MARYS AREA MIDDLE SCHOOL

St. Marys Area Middle School is located in St. Marys , Pennsylvania , in the Pennsylvania Wilds Region. The school serves over 550 students and is part of the St. Marys Area School District. Because of its location in the Pennsylvania Wilds Region, the St. Marys Area Middle School decided to develop a regional Environmental Learning Center to serve its students and students from neighboring schools, while bettering the local environment.

The Environmental Learning Center consists of an outdoor classroom, greenhouse complex, trout nursery, nature trails, and alternative energy sources, including a wind turbine and solar panels. Plans for future development include the creation of raised bed gardens for intergenerational gardening and the completion of a nature trail.

THE BEGINNINGS

At the awards event, we interviewed Jim Wortman, Principal of St. Marys Area Middle School and Robert Bolt, Physical Education Teacher. Mr. Wortman explained to us that the project originated from some hands-on microbiology lessons conducted in a stream on the school's property. The science teacher, Mr. Fordoski and the former middle school principal, now superintendent, are both avid fisherman and had several discussions about the possibility of using the stream to raise trout. At first, it was just an idea. Next came questions--“Can we? Should we? How would we?” Mr. Wortman says. “It really started with small ideas and blossomed.”

Mr. Bolt told us of the project's beginnings, “Most or all of the work was done voluntarily. There were no tax dollars involved. It was all raised by kids...The more we were doing, the more people that came on board.”

These early ideas of raising trout in the stream have led to three filtered and monitored trout tanks in a closed, climate controlled building, a 50x50 outdoor classroom, which includes a stone fireplace donated by a local company and donated stuffed animals ranging from a Patagonian parakeet to fishers and river otters, a fully-functioning greenhouse complex where students learn about hydroponics and aquaponics, solar panels and a wind turbine to provide energy for the outdoor classroom and electric golf cart, and a partially-completed 1 ½ mile nature trail.

COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS

Early in the project's development, local sportsmen's groups became interested in the school's work and got involved. After the initial hard volunteer work, and the trout nursery was in place and running, the community increasingly got involved. As Mr. Wortman pointed out, “Once there's real live fish in the nursery and kids are talking about it and lessons are happening, it's a much easier sell.” And the kids are talking about their Environmental Center .

Since the initial partnership with the Fish and Game Commission, and funding from Representative Surra, the school has partnered with numerous organizations, including: The Pennsylvania National Guard, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the Elk County Conservation District, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry, grants, and local industry and individual donations. As the project has progressed, more and more individuals and groups have gotten involved.

STUDENTS

Mr. Wortman and Mr. Bolt insist students can learn the state academic standards in their work with the Environmental Center . Mr. Wortman explained the model they use—standards in the classroom, mini model in the classroom, real-life application. The trout nursery is one example. Students learn about fish and water in their textbooks; they study using the classroom aquarium; and, they work with the trout nursery to apply their learning to real life. According to Mr. Bolt, “Kids really love the hands-on approach.”

The students have been involved in every stage of the Environmental Center 's growth, from laying bricks to feeding fish in the cold winter months, to raising funds. And everyone is involved. Mr. Bolt says, “ 100% of our kids can utilize the facility”. Entering sixth graders each raise a plant in the greenhouse; classes meet in the outdoor classroom; and multiple clubs work to keep the Center running successfully. The Helping Hands for Habitat Club raises funds for the project, and the Outdoor Club, run by Mr. Fordoski, cleans the fish tanks, feeds the fish, monitors the ph of the water, and multiple other tasks necessary for running the trout nursery. According to Mr. Wortman, the Outdoor Club has 24 members, “ and people knocking on the door to get in the club”.

PLANS FOR THE FUTURE

Though the Center is already comprehensive, the school has plans for expansion. And standing on 200 acres, the Center has room to grow. The students are completing the 1 ½ nature trail for community members to use, maintaining the trout nursery, and working with other wildlife. Right now, they are hatching pheasants.

Other plans for the future include: a wildlife viewing platform, raised bed intergenerational gardens, increased use of hydroponics and aquaponics, raising of niche plants to mitigate mine-acid drainage, cross curricular involvement, and biofuel development.

St. Marys invites everyone to get involved in their Environmental Center , not just district residents or students. Mr. Wortman explains, “We knew we didn't want this to be restricted to just the middle school or the St. Marys Area School District.” They negotiated transportation for all schools located in Elk County . Mr. Wortman says he wants the Center to be a county resource and a regional resource.

And he has high hopes for St. Mary's students. He wants them to become “environmental stewards” with a “ real deep appreciation for where we live”. He says, “The kid excitement is only going to get bigger” and is excited at the prospect of using the district's rural setting to the students' advantage. “Who has this? Who can get to this from their school desk? We have nature here”.

SCHOOL NARRATIVE

Christopher Casey, Dean of Students, nominated St. Marys Area Middle School for the Building Community Award. The following is his narrative of St. Marys' practices that contribute to the educational experiences of the school's students while reaching out to their community.

Robust Learning and Enduring Partnerships. The Saint Marys Area Middle School is committed to providing didactic, relevant, and sustainable learning experiences in keeping with our obligations to the state academic standards. We endeavor to provide robust learning experiences related to the Environmental Education, which address the pillars of environmental stewardship: air quality, water quality, soil quality, and sustainable living. We believe that lessons learned about our environment may be among the most important and enduring content we teach. To that end, we are developing an on-campus outdoor classroom facility that will include the infrastructure necessary to provide hands-on environmental education to students, not just from our school district, but also for other nearby school districts in our rural “Pennsylvania Wilds Region.” We have developed enduring partnerships with the Elk County Conservation District, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC), the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Funding the Project. Our staff has been careful and deliberate in our planning, using demonstrated success as the basis for funding requests and funding solutions. Rather than the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy, we aspire to the idea that “if you demonstrate it, they will build it”. Endeavoring to develop a regional Environmental Learning Center is challenging, but it is a challenge we are meeting to provide our rural students a world-class education. Our rural public school district does not have the resources to finance our outdoor classroom initiative with its current revenue. We chose to use fund-raisers and grants to finance our efforts. To date, we have secured funding through student-led fundraisers or grants from the Pennsylvania Conservation Corps (PCC), the Pennsylvania DEP, Workforce Investment Board Youth Council, Elk County Commissioners (Title III Rural Schools), and local corporate sponsors. 

Student Involvement and Links to Standards. With our funding, we have been successful in developing a student-managed PFBC cooperative trout nursery, which raises and releases over 1000 trout into local trout streams each year. The students are solely responsible for the trout to include considerations of water quality, effluent management, disease management, feeding, and stocking. Each school day, a cohort of students walks the short distance from the Middle School to the Outdoor Classroom to carry-out their trout-related duties. They collect information about trout health, to include feeding habits, stress levels, segregation patterns, and appearance. In addition, they follow a process that removes harmful nitrogen and introduces fresh, filtered water. These daily practices bolster many of the required Academic Standards for Ecology and the Environment. Instead of classroom laboratory activities or passive lessons to accomplish these academic goals, these students learn the same lessons in live, practical activities with living organisms. The success of this program was lauded by a visit by the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, Kathleen McGinty, and by a profile in the PFBC monthly publication, Pennsylvania Angler and Boater .

Employment Opportunities for Youth. Our mission is about people, not programs; to that end, we have endeavored to provide collateral benefit to the local community through employment opportunities in the development of our facility. We wrote a successful grant to sponsor a PCC crew to build our Outdoor Classroom and the associated Greenhouse Complex. These at-risk youth were employed in skill-building activities that led to follow-on employment in every case. Our corpsmembers have made excellent progress in their individual employment pathways. Each has a renewed sense of responsibility, a stronger work ethic, and the satisfaction of having completed several enduring projects that will stand as a reminder of their teamwork and accomplishments. They have learned many positive lessons while here at this work site. Building on that success, we offered our site as a summer youth employment opportunity for the regional Workforce Investment Board. Using our existing classroom facility, we provided educational and work experiences to local disadvantaged youth, giving them a jump-start on the fall school year start-up.

Scientific Inquiry. The recent completion of our Classroom Greenhouse gives us a chance to explore hydroponics and aquaponics as water quality solutions. We now have a state-of-the-art facility for the further study of plants and water quality. Our goal is to complete the loop in the study of water quality by allowing plants, through hyroponics, to purify the nitrogen-rich water that we discharge from the trout nursery. Once we cycle that water through the plants a few times, it is our hope that we can return it to the trout. A significant problem that much of rural Pennsylvania faces is mine acid drainage. We are working with the Pennsylvania State University (DuBois Campus) and the Elk County Conservation District to find a suitable “niche” species of plant to be used in mine-acid mitigation. Our students will be directly involved in the scientific inquiry that will explore which species we will be able to grow and ultimately “stock” into local areas of concern to offset the devastating effects of mine acid drainage. These classic trial and error studies capture a large segment of the required academic standards in Science for our 6 th , 7 th , and 8 th graders. Our Science educators can think of few better learning experiences than those that involve critical thinking and cross-curricular inquiry. Our greenhouse will have three process-oriented goals: cultivating traditional soil based horticulture, developing hydroponics processes to clean water for utilization by trout species, and exploration of plant species that will be useful in mine-acid mitigation.

Alternative Energy Solutions. Another exciting area of inquiry-based learning involves the exploration of alternative energy solutions by our middle school students. We already have installed a (grant funded) 1.5 kilowatt wind turbine that provides a visual and quantitative example of the use of wind as a clean energy source. We have secured funding and will soon be purchasing three mobile solar labs for use in Science classrooms. We have been pre-approved for follow-on funding of fixed solar panels for our outdoor classroom facility, whose output will be monitored by students, and the power will be battery-stored for use in a “green” golf cart that will be used for site transportation. We are beginning to collect waste cooking oil for future processing and use in a diesel maintenance vehicle that will be used for upkeep on the developing nature trail.

Intergenerational Gardens. Our next major area of expansion will be a raised-bed “intergenerational gardening” program that will link our middle school-aged students with senior-aged community members in horticultural pursuits. Whether the setting is rural or urban, the importance of intergenerational mentoring of our youth cannot be overstated. Many within our senior population were born or raised on farms and many others had productive subsistence gardens for most of their lives. Transition to assisted living facilities often means that they must give up their gardens. We will link those “master gardeners” with our eager adolescents in a program that cultivates the best in both groups. 

Conclusion. We have seen dramatic successes over the span of our project. Teachers have embraced this effort and work to develop lesson and unit plans that fully involve the use of the outdoor classroom in cross-curricular learning. Our staff is well-lead and motivated towards inspired teaching that…challenges their students and fosters inquiry-based interdisciplinary learning. The Saint Marys Area Middle School is proud of its success in reaching beyond its mandate to educate school-aged children and reinventing itself as a rural community resource.

 

PORTAGE AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT 

Portage Area School District provides a great example of a network of formal and informal district-community partnerships. Through connections with individuals in the community, community organizations, and local government, the district has brought educational programs to students that it otherwise might have struggled to do. These programs include:

  • Drug and alcohol prevention;
  • Incentives programs for academic improvement, overall academic performance, attendance, and community service;
  • Suicide prevention;
  • Credit management for graduating students.

Community groups and the municipal government help the school in other ways, as well, including tree removal, paving work, and excavation. This close partnership has saved district residents thousands of tax dollars.

Students at Portage Area give back to their community. For example, student volunteers work at the PA Food Pantry and participate in Earth Week by helping to clean up their community.

As Principal Deb Meckey noted in her district narrative, “Companies and organizations realize that the success of our school directly impacts the quality of business and life in the Portage Area. We are grateful that these partnerships exist and wish to thank those who give of their time and talent to support our students. We are committed to continuing to foster productive partnerships, which unite district and community resources to ensure excellence in our school system.” 

Advice for other districts

At the awards ceremony Superintendent Richard Bernazzoli said the community is available to help the school “anytime we need anything”. Mr. Bernazzoli gave the following advice to other districts: “If you need something, there's a lot of resources out there that'll save you a ton of money”; and, “they [the community] are waiting for you to ask them” for help.

 

GALETON AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT

The Galeton Area School District serves the borough of Galeton and surrounding communities, covering approximately 325 square miles. The district houses 380 students from preschool through 12 th grade in one building. In the district's narrative, Principal Kay Stuart says, “The school is literally and figuratively the center of the community.”

Galeton is involved in a number of school-community initiatives. Michael Schwarz, Superintendent, and Larry Smith, Assistant Principal, describe four areas of focus for their district: leadership, community service, technology, and exposure to the outside world. The district addresses these areas through partnerships with various community organizations.

Technology

As written by Principal Stuart in the district's narrative, technology “allows those in rural areas to take advantage of opportunities in other places as well as share the talents and abilities of rural residents throughout the world.” One huge technological accomplishment was a cooperative effort with PennCom Internet Company to provide internet access for the town of Galeton.

Galeton uses technology for several purposes. First, Galeton uses technology for education. The district is one of two Pennsylvania sites that have partnered with Penn State University to run an after school program called Youth Engaged in Technology. Second, the district uses technology to improve communication. They utilize a web-based communication system to communicate student performance to parents.

Leadership Development

Together with the Potter County Education Council, Galeton has developed and initiated a youth leadership program this year. This program consists of monthly meetings where students and adults develop leadership qualities, and focus on keeping future leaders in the area.

Selected students also participate in the Youth Awareness Leadership program, sponsored by the Moose. Once they complete their training, these high school students teach elementary children lessons learned through their training.

This partnership with the elementary students has led to several high school-elementary programs, including Mini-Poms, which is a cheerleading activity for elementary students coached by high school cheerleaders and Pee-Wee Basketball, which is instructed by varsity basketball players. According to Principal Stuart, “these programs are initiated, coordinated, and run by these teens with very little adult direction. By training students for leadership and putting them in leadership positions we are taking an active role in the development of our future leaders.”

Community Service/Volunteerism

Through Galeton's community service program, students learn the importance of volunteerism while expanding relationships with the community and developing leadership skills. Students in grades 9-12 are required to complete 10 hours of volunteer work each year through the program. Examples of volunteer work include: hospitals, fundraising, cemetery cleanup, food pantries, and Junior Firemen. The district has also aided in several large community projects through student volunteers. Some examples include:

  • Landscaping the new library when it was built in 2005;
  • Working with the Borough maintenance crew to empty and refill sand filters at the water treatment plant, saving the Borough thousands of dollars;
  • Partnering with the Rotary to provide volunteers for the Woodsmen's Carnival.

Exposure to the Outside World

Because of the district's geographic isolation, the school feels it is important for students be exposed to the wide variety of options available in more urban settings. Some examples of exposure are: Red Ribbon Day, annual trips to Darien Lake Amusement Park, and dual enrollment and AP courses.

This year's Red Ribbon Day included sending students to a leadership conference, a hike through Watkins Glen State Park, a narrated cruise of Seneca Lake, and a visit to Penn State University Park. Elementary students visited Clyde Peeling's Reptile Land, the Little League Hall of Fame, enjoyed bowling, and toured a pumpkin farm. Preschoolers visited the local fire house and learned about fire safety.

Community organizations make these trips and other events possible through sponsorship and chaperoning of activities, including: professional hockey games, college basketball games, professional baseball, and cultural events such as theater productions or concerts.

Many students live so far away from the school that participation in after-school programs is difficult. To increase participation, the district offers a healthy snack program after school through its Campus Center, a program in which students can get tutoring or homework help, a quiet place to study, or a venue to access technology.

Evidence of Success

55% of Galeton's graduates attend postsecondary education. Graduates have been successful at some of the largest and most challenging college programs. According to Principal Stuart, “We know we are successful when those graduates join the community and help it grow.”