KIDS for the BAY featured in Earth Island Journal

by Jason Mark, Earth Island Journal Editor

A condominium developer would die for the view from Misao Brown’s light-filled, plant-festooned third-grade classroom at Paden Elementary School in Alameda, CA. Eight-foot-tall windows look onto the sailboat masts of the town’s nearby marina and the waters of the San Francisco Bay, just yards away. On a crisp autumn afternoon, the Bay looks pristine, a blue-silver expanse stretching for miles to the distant San Mateo hills in the west.

But all is not well with the Bay ecosystem. Within the water lurk all kinds of environmental dangers. As guest teacher Kristina Cervantes is explaining to the children of Brown’s class, litter is jeopardizing the health of the Bay — paints and solvents are poured into storm drains, cigarette butts, candy wrappers, and plastic bags are washed by rains into the bay, and from there are carried to the Pacific Ocean.

“A sea lion will grow, right? It can get real big, 300 pounds or so,” Cervantes says, as she holds up a plastic six-pack ring. “But does plastic grow? No. And then this gets caught around [a sea lion’s] neck.” Cervantes shows a picture of a sea lion wearing a six-pack ring like a choke collar.
Her presentation is part of a 20-hour curriculum in which she educates students about watershed ecosystems, the importance of environmental protection, and the many ways that they and their families can help preserve the environment. The environmental education program is organized by Kids for the Bay, a Berkeley, CA-based organization that for 15 years has successfully raised thousands of young children’s ecological awareness.

“We provide long-term, in-depth, multiple-experience programs to give students reasons to care about the environment,” says Mandi Billinge, founder and executive director of Kids for the Bay, an Earth Island Institute-sponsored project. “We go into the schools and work with them in their own environment. We train the teachers so that they get to learn alongside of their students, and they love that.”

Billinge, a native of Great Britain, started doing environmental instruction around the UK’s Humber Estuary, where she taught kids about their local environment. After moving to the US, she decided to launch a similar program focused on the San Francisco Bay. Kids for the Bay began with Billinge writing the curriculum at her kitchen table and carrying bags of equipment on the bus to teach at schools the next morning.

Today, Kids for the Bay has an 11-person staff, and works with schools throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties. The organization, funded by city grants and private philanthropies, reaches 4,000 students and 200 teachers a year. In 2005, the EPA recognized the group as one of the top environmental education programs in the US.

Kids for the Bay’s signature project is its Watershed Action Program, in which the instructors combine classroom exercises, field trips to local creeks and bay habitats, and service projects to get children to think about the importance of preserving healthy ecosystems. As part of the program, kids do a survey of litter in their neighborhood and talk with their parents about the proper disposal of paints, car washing soaps, and household hazardous waste. In addition to the Watershed Action Program, Kids for the Bay hosts a science summer camp, runs a recycling and composting curriculum, and organizes training seminars for teachers so they can keep the lessons going.

The centerpiece of Kids for the Bay’s approach is the idea of “education through action.” The curriculum always includes a project so children can help defend the environment. Many classes participate in trash clean-ups. Some groups have helped stencil “Drains to the Bay” warnings around storm drains. A few classes have built native plant gardens at their campuses. Recently, a class painted a large mural depicting the bay ecosystem.

These sorts of experiences, say Kids for the Bay instructors, are vital to getting children involved in creative problem-solving and critical thinking.
“It’s amazing how important it is to immediately get kids helping the environment,” says Sheela Shankar, the group’s associate director. “It’s a really simple and empowering thing.”

Kids for the Bay staff and the full-time teachers they work with say that such outdoor education is all the more important in an era of make-or-break school standards. Administrators and faculty have become so fearful of their students scoring poorly on state tests that they have drained much of the creativity from classroom instruction. At some schools, students are not allowed to take field trips until after the state testing is completed. Rising fees for school bus rental — which cost up to $600 per day — also make it difficult to organize out-of-class learning.

“We’re so grateful for this hands-on program,” says Brown. “With ‘No Child Left Behind,’ it’s all multiple choice. There’s no thinking. This is real learning — lessons that stay.”

Kids for the Bay balances the demands of state testing with the desire for more creative lessons by giving teachers hands-on curriculum that is designed to teach the core life science concepts required by the state.
“There should be standards. You need that assessment and evaluation,” Billinge says. “But you don’t want to be teaching to the tests so much that you lose the joy and fun of learning.”

Kids for the Bay tries to restore some of that fun simply by getting kids outside to learn. When Cervantes tells Brown’s students they are going outdoors, the whole room lights up with excitement, and a few kids nearly jump out of their seats. Soon the group is busy combing the bay shore for trash. The lesson has all the energy of a scavenger hunt. “Metal!” shouts one student. “I found glass,” yells another.

When asked why she likes to go outside to learn, seven-year-old Teshi Sakani says, “It’s fun because you get to see what you’ve been learning about.”

In the last 20 years, environmental education programs have blossomed around the country. One thing that distinguishes Kids for the Bay from peer organizations is its commitment to teaching children through their own cultures. In a region as ethnically diverse as the San Francisco Bay Area, having a multicultural and multilingual staff is a must. Kids for the Bay instructors say they go out of their way to expose students to environmental role models from their own ethnic communities. For example, when one of Cervantes’ classes was studying environmental justice, she sought hard to find a Tongan community activist, Sione Faka’Osi, who might engage the interest of one girl who seemed disconnected from the class.

“Our environmental justice focus makes us different,” says Shefali Shah, another instructor. “We work with a lot of low-income students and people of color communities that are really impacted. A lot of my students know about refinery explosions because they’ve lived through it.”
Another element of the Kids for the Bay program that distinguishes the group is its emphasis on continuing education. The education-through-action model creates a structure in which kids are continually coming back to their project — be it a garden or a restored creek — and in the process are developing lasting relationships with the ecosystems on which, as they are learning, our civilization depends.

“We’ve worked at Stege School for three years, and I saw real change in the students,” says Associate Director Shankar. “Their attitude about the creek as a part of their neighborhood — they felt that it was their creek, because they helped take care of it.”

The fact that the lessons really do sink in is proof that this kind of education works. Cervantes remembers recently re-visiting the Downer School in Richmond, CA and overhearing one sixth-grade girl tell her friend not to litter because the trash would wash out to the ocean, where a sea lion would eat it. Cervantes stopped and asked the girls where they heard about that.

“We learned it in second grade, when these people came to our classroom,” one of the girls said. “Some group — I think they were called Kids for the Bay.”

— Jason Mark