San Francisco schools expanding outdoor classroom program

Education Outside
Photo courtesy of Paige GreenCorps member Kelly Nichols works with students as a part of Education Outside,
an expanding program in The City.

By Andrea Koskey | SF Examiner

Thousands of students in 22 San Francisco elementary schools will return to class this fall with a new piece of curriculum: outdoor education.

The San Francisco Unified School District began a partnership in the 2010-11 school year with Education Outside to provide instructors and curriculum at school sites that had existing gardens and make them outdoor classrooms for three years. The partnership began in four campuses and this fall will expand to 22, including both elementary and K-8 sites.

"Our goal is to get kids outside more," said Arden Bucklin-Sporer, executive director for Education Outside. "We focus on science education as a direct response to the idea that urban youth have a disconnection to the outside world."

The program focuses on science and sustainability in order to provide hands-on learning for students. For instance, students could be using measuring devices in the garden, journaling or calculating volumes of compost.

Education Outside runs on a $2 million budget to supply a small stipend and benefits to its instructors, known as corps members, to run the courses. The goal is to give each student roughly 45 minutes in the outdoor classroom each week, but the job doesn't end there for corps members.

Bucklin-Sporer said they also "hold the reins for all sustainability at the school," meaning the corps members help run the compost program in the school lunchroom and work with the school community to reduce waste and water consumption.

Bucklin-Sporer said traditionally these green spaces at schools were looked at as just community gardens, but Education Outside believes they can be something more.

"It is great to use it as a place to grow food," she said. "But it can go much deeper than that. We think outdoor classrooms are a great opportunity to learn math, science and literacy while growing food."

Mary Lou Cranna, principal of Jefferson Elementary School where Education Outside already has a program, is featured in a video made by the organization in which she says the curriculum is important to students: "It's beyond reading and writing, it's beyond bubbling, it's experiential based. It bodes well for holistic learning."

Green spaces at schools began appearing after a bond was passed by voters in 2003 to provide SFUSD with money to upgrade aging facilities. In that bond, along with bonds in 2006 and 2011, has brought the district $14 million for construction of green spaces and gardens.

Bucklin-Sporer said schools with gardens can petition Education Outside to provide a corps member. The organization's goal is to expand to 84 schools.