Out of the classroom and into the community: How Muskegon students are contributing

Great Lakes deserve great students, and the West Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative connects curious learners with Pure Michigan environments. From planting trees to creating community partnerships, Marla R. Miller finds out how local students are becoming engaged problem-solvers at a few regional hubs.
While embarking on a project to plant native trees in the City of North Muskegon, a group of students at North Muskegon High School had to switch gears and tackle public policy.

The city’s tree policy only allowed for eight types of trees and did not address the plethora of invasive trees and shrubs that should be prohibited. So, students in North Muskegon High School’s forestry class and Environmental Club spent several months researching, writing and working with city officials to change the tree policy. And they succeeded. Today, a variety of native trees can be planted in North Muskegon.

The project is an example of the real and meaningful place-based education work happening in schools throughout West Michigan thanks to the support of West Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative, one of nine regional hubs affiliated with Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative across Michigan. The GLSI is made possible by a $10.9 million, 10-year funding commitment by the Great Lakes Fishery Trust.

The WMGLSI encourages student-driven projects that involve civic and community engagement in hopes of making young Michigan residents more aware of their local, natural environment and creating lifelong advocates for the Great Lakes.

“Place-based education is all about using the community as the context for learning,” says Erica Johnson, project specialist for WMGLSI. “It has to tie to the curriculum, but we want them to become stewards of the Great Lakes and their ecosystems and see they can make a difference.”

All GLSI hubs emphasizes community partnerships. The goal is for students to develop and execute a project rather than simply provide volunteer hours, Johnson says.

“Our big push is these are student-led, student-designed projects,” she says. “They research it all, make the calls. That’s really what we push, the whole youth voice throughout the process.”

Housed at Muskegon Area Intermediate School District, the WMGLSI is a collaborative effort of the MAISD’s Regional Mathematics and Science Center, the GLSI and various community agencies and partners in West Michigan. Early on, the hub played a vital role in building relationships between participating teachers and partners in the community, says Dave Krebs, project director for the WMGLSI and director of the MAISD’s math and science center.

The hub has received two awards for its efforts, Muskegon Area Environmental Excellence Award for Innovation in Place-Based Education in 2009 and Sustainability Champion in Education in 2014, from the Muskegon Area Sustainability Coalition. As a regional hub, WMGLSI serves 22 school districts in Muskegon, Newaygo, Oceana, and northern Ottawa counties, encompassing a little more than 1 million acres.and spanning the entire urban/rural and socioeconomic continuums.

“WMGLSI exemplifies experiential learning,” Krebs says. “It has the elements that educational research suggests really produces both academic and civic and social gains in students in ways that other instructional models cannot. Without the GLSI initiative, it would have been difficult or impossible to have the resources to bring life to place-based educational in a way we are able to with these grant funds.”

The WSMGLSI was one of the first hubs established by the GLSI, a statewide program of the Great Lakes Fishery Trust launched in 2007 to develop knowledgeable and active stewards of the Great Lakes through hands-on learning in the community.

“We really want these hubs to respond to local culture and stewardship needs and things that are already in place in the area,” says Mary Whitmore, coordinator of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative. “By allowing them to take charge of planning their work, we can encourage them to capitalize on the strengths and assets of their regions.”

All the hubs operate in collaboration with another organization, which oversees administrative and fiduciary responsibilities, Whitmore says. WMGLSI chose to partner with the MAISD after receiving an early planning grant from GLSI in late 2007. The GLSI continues to provide core funding, but local staff seek out additional grants to support their work.

“A bunch of community partners play a really major role in this work, from nonprofits to local governments and small businesses,” says Erica Johnson. “We can’t do this hub without other funding revenues like Earth Force and the community foundation.”

WMGLSI supports the capacity of both urban and rural schools and communities to teach students about local environmental concerns and tackle projects that make a real difference.

“These projects that go on in these hubs are great examples of kids putting a lot of energy and thought into making a difference in their communities,” Whitmore says. “It’s trying to make learning come alive and make learning interesting and anticipate the needs of society in the future. It’s not taking away from core curriculum; it’s really enhancing it and making it more engaging.”

The WMGLSI has awarded more than $80,000 to 43 schools for place-based education learning, reaching 6,000 students across all grades and involving 75 teachers. During the 2013-2014 school year, more than 2,000 students engaged in 24 environmental service-learning projects throughout their communities. The hub also hosts a student symposium every spring to bring together the young environmental activists from the various schools and showcase their projects.

“When I watch their presentations, it’s obvious they are working on issues and solving problems in ways that are most often beyond the scope of traditional curriculum, that’s a giant impact these students are a part of in their school and in their community,” Krebs says.

Debra Johnson teaches chemistry, AP biology, AP environmental science, an environmental stewardship class and leads the high school’s Environmental Club. She said being involved in WMGLSI has reinvigorated her as a teacher and inspires her students.

“Those are a couple of really great things about WMGLSI that has transformed me even further into a teacher who can help my students become participating, active, contributing citizens,” says Johnson. “I have money for my projects so I didn’t have to do a bunch of fundraising. Another huge piece is the whole idea that I get support from Erica and our hub has field coordinators.”

In an era of teaching that emphasizes standardized tests and students feeling disconnected, place-based learning opportunities engage and excite students and get them out of a classroom and into their communities.

“They get very isolated in their classrooms,” says Debra Johnson. “It’s very hard for students to realize how real their education is and how important it is. They must be allowed to be contributing citizens and have the power to make an impact.”

This piece was made possible through a partnership with the Great Lakes Fishery Trust and Public Sector Consultants.

Marla R. Miller is a social activist, entrepreneur and freelance writer for UIX Grand Rapids. Learn more about her background and work at marlarmiller.com
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