Feature: A charter school model of ‘Aina in education in Hawaii
Sahtiya Hosoda Hammell
In contrast to unit-based environmental education like we saw with MA’O Farms or City Schoolyard Garden, there are several public charter schools here in Hawaii that are aligning their entire school around sustainability. Charter schools are funded by taxes at the same rate as the local public schools, based on the attendance and per student expenditures set by the Hawai’i Department of Education.
The School for Examining Essential Questions of Sustainability (SEEQS) is an example that works along democratic principles with a big picture mindset. The beginning of the year is full of community building activities that help establish norms for community behavior, like intellectual safety. Faculty and students have optional town hall meetings (that most attend) to decide the direction of school policy and maintain those norms on a regular basis. As a result, students have a big say in the structure and content of their own learning; this year the school is divided up into teams that are focusing on energy, oceans and “stuff.” Academic content courses provide discipline-specific skills, and each day begins with physical activity to stimulate mental acuity. Each week students spend 4 110-minute block periods in Essential Questions of Sustainability classes, where 40-60 students work with a team of 3-5 interdisciplinary teachers to thoroughly interrogate one question using the overlapping lenses, of history, science, math and English and the arts.
Though it is challenging for a school to constantly establish and maintain norms in its community, the payoff is worth it. 83% of students at SEEQS say that their teachers motivate them to learn, while a recent Gallup poll showed that only 32% of students nationwide are involved and enthusiastic about learning. Despite not focusing on testing, SEEQS students also have better standardized test scores than their peers, performing as much as 25% better than the state average for yearly assessments reported by the Hawai’i Department of Education.
I was lucky to be able to sit down with the school head after a campus tour. Buffy Cushman-Patz is the founder of SEEQS and she differentiates the sustainable education that she does from more traditional understandings of environmental education; “environmental education is about knowing things that relate to the environment and how it works, sustainability is a way of living.” When asked what the most important lesson students would take away from their time at SEEQS, she said that “knowing they are in control of their own learning and know what quality is based on internal standards.“ Before founding SEEQS, Cushman-Patz left a Geology PhD program at UH with a Master’s in order to teach in K-12 in public schools, charter schools, and private schools because she loved teaching.
During our interview, Buffy credits the same frustration that led her to leave academia to drive her to start a school: limited scope. Geologists and biologists could be collaborating to address common challenges but instead are developing parallel bodies of knowledge. Educators are not expected to be whole people, and are overwhelmingly pressured to focus on very traditional classroom models. Students don’t expect educators to have lives outside of their classrooms, and in other schools she taught in, “they got weirded out if they learned that I was in an ultimate frisbee tournament over the weekend.” Wondering how “humans with conflicting interests exist with finite shared resources” unless they begin thinking outside the box, Cushman-Patz learned about the MEd in School Development at Harvard while working at the National Science Foundation’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs for the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship. She dedicated a year to the program, making sure every class assignment was in service of her dream school.
Buffy Cushman-Patz’s dream seems to have become a reality. While on my school visit, I was led by a 6th and 8th grade student who gushed excitedly about what they were currently working on,like a bicycle that could charge a cell phone, as well as previous year’s projects, like the aquaponic tilapia pond (dubbed Aqua Pono). Middle schoolers rarely gush about anything, much less schoolwork. The SEEQS model is doing a wonderful job keeping the love of learning alive for students, and encouraging them to have the skills to succeed in a sustainable future.