Charter School Puts ‘Kids Outside, in Nature’

Published July 12, 2013

Imagine a school where children can sit outside to read or play an instrument under trees. That’s the outdoor classroom at Evergreen Community Charter School (ECCS) in Asheville, North Carolina.

The school boasts an extensive list of accolades. In 2009, its charter was extended for a full decade, an unusual length of time, demonstrating strong student performance. It was one of 78 schools to win the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Award in 2012. Students wash their dishes after lunch and bring their own utensils from home. A nature trail encircles the campus, which has rain gardens and a monarch butterfly migration way-station.

Eleanor Ashton was among a group of parents and teachers who, 15 years ago, wanted something more than what the local school system had to offer.

“My kids were in the city school system and at the time … the trend seemed to be to keep them sitting at their desk and not having them outside or doing physical activity,” Ashton said. “A big part of my reason [for founding Evergreen] was this outdoor experience. We wanted our kids outside, in nature.”

More than 180 schools across the country share a similar structure and teaching philosophy.

Expeditionary Learning
Expeditionary Learning Schools such as ECCS structure their curriculum through organized expeditions, where students may collect and test water samples from local rivers or produce a movie.

“I came across expeditionary learning,” Ashton said. “It’s a school design model which seemed to be in line with the way we were teaching and the way we wanted to teach. Once we bought into expeditionary learning and had their school designers come out and work with our teachers, we really started to formulate our focus on environmental education.”

Experiences outside the classroom are key to student learning in the classroom—they make students “much more attached” to what they’re learning, said Mike Sule, an Evergreen sixth-grade teacher.

Mother Beth Rhatigan says the school has taught her children invaluable life lessons.

“Evergreen’s experiential learning, through fieldwork, group projects, doing rather than reading about, is at a level far above the local traditional schools,” Rhatigan said. “Throughout their time at Evergreen [students] have opportunities to challenge themselves physically, emotionally, and academically via an incredible adventure and PE program, crew program, and engaging academics.”

All eighth graders attend a wilderness camp. In eighth grade, Rhatigan’s daughter also traveled to Cambodia with teachers and classmates for spring break.

“This experience opened her to travel, a love of learning new languages, and a deeper understanding of other cultures that has shaped her high school years thus far and her plans for the future,” Rhatigan said.

‘Creative License’ for Teachers
Evergreen teachers differentiate instruction, applying the lessons and curriculum requirements in different ways to suit different children and classes, Sule said.

“I have a creative license,” Sule said. “While I need to meet the state standards and my students need to score well on the tests, the administration expects me to come up with dynamic lesson plans and units that meet the needs of the learners in my classroom.”

Evergreen teachers and administrators have been accessible and responsive, Rhatigan said.

“There was a time when our youngest daughter was feeling overwhelmed with her homework, and her teachers not only met with us but really heard us and worked with us to come up with a plan for our daughter that fit her needs,” she remembered. It is also typical for middle school teachers to follow up on their students throughout high school, she said.

Teaching the Teachers
Expeditionary learning designers and the school’s own leadership provide extensive teacher training.

“I’ve gone through hours and hours of professional development for close to ten years now,” Sule said.

After years of outside trainers coming in, now older staff at Evergreen mentor newer teachers.

 “I feel like I’ve been a teacher, that my administrators also see me as a student, and we’ve been given consistent professional development experiences that are authentic and worthwhile and meaningful,” Sule said.

Image by Brande Jackson.