Students in the Kingston City School District are experiencing the great outdoors thanks to a partnership with nature-based educational group Wild Earth. The two have been working together for nearly a decade to get kids out of the classroom and into their surroundings. But it’s also become an even deeper relationship over the years.
“The reality is for a lot of kids in today’s school system, a significant portion of the year they’re sitting in a classroom listening to what a teacher or really the, what the district wants to get out of the children,” said Craig Diaz, Wild Earth’s middle school coordinator. “A lot of the time it can be, it can really wear down on a young individual. So getting out of the classroom and and being outside allows them to really be expressive of what it is that they want to get out of an experience and not just be thinking about all of the work that they have to do and meeting all these different standards. They really get to explore, and not just explore outside, but explore themselves and what it is that really interests them.”
The partnership between the KCSD and Wild Earth is partially sustained by grant funding, but it began with a funding opportunity that got away.
“About ten years ago, we partnered with (Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Education) Mary Beth Bonville to apply for an extended-day grant,” said Wild Earth’s Program Operations Director Esperanza Gonzalez. “And though the district didn’t get that funding, we began the relationship there and began looking for different opportunities to engage Kingston youth.”
Those opportunities started with an after school program at John F. Kennedy Elementary in 2015, quickly growing and including a focus on fifth grade academic cohesion, crucial in a district with seven elementary schools and a pair of middle schools.
“It’s quite a lot for a young 9-10 year old,” Gonzalez said. “And so they really wanted an experience in the beginning of the school year for those kids to bond, to get to know their teachers better, and just orient to the school culture in a field trip sort of fashion. And so we began our nature immersion field trips for fifth grade, (and) every fifth grade student came out for a full day out in the woods. And then that expanded out to sixth grade, and then it’s slowly kind of been building from there.”
Wild Earth’s growth in the district also included guided recess and expanded after-school programs, which not only help academically, but also in other areas that have increasingly become vital to the KCSD.
“That was where we were seeing a lot of the need in terms of just supporting social and emotional behaviors on the play yard, engagement, getting kids outside,” said Gonzalez. “And so that began what is now our biggest program for schools, which is guided recess, where we join their activities and offer some nature-themed activities and games. And then we stick around for an afterschool.”
Wild Earth currently offers a total of 196 program days at the KCSD, serving approximately 2,800 students across the district. At J.F.K. there are 44 days of guided recess in grades K-4 and after school programs for fourth graders, two days a week. At J. Watson Bailey Middle School, Wild Earth holds seven days of “Back to School, Back to Nature” field trips for every fifth grader, along with 43 days of guided recess and after school programming, two days a week. At M. Clifford Miller there are five days of “Back to School, Back to Nature” field trips and 45 days of guided recess and after school programming, two days each week.
Wild Earth also offers an internship for students at Kingston High School, with 44 days of after school programming at J.F.K., plus two days of in the woods intensives for six interns.
The partnership is expanding this spring to George Washington Elementary School, offering six days of guided recess for grades K-4, and after school programming for fourth graders.
Wild Earth works with the KCSD to ensure its programming connects with the students’ in-class curriculum, and since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 the relationship has continued to evolve into something even more profound.
“We have such rapport, we’re literally on the second or third sibling in a family, and we realized that it was somewhat fitting to really focus on relationships the past two years,” said Associate Director Zach Jones. “And just finding ways to make sure that there’s spaces for children besides their teachers, who do immense work. But, you know, when you have 30 children, it gets really difficult.”
Caleb Mercado, Wild Earth’s programs for schools teen coordinator, agreed that the relationship has deepened since the pandemic, particularly for older kids.
“We’ve been able to work our way back in safely and to help provide the opportunity for students to play games outside of just outdoor education, for them to just be able to use their pent-up energy and potential frustrations in a game where they can walk away feeling like, ‘I feel good,’ or ‘I helped my friend win’, or ‘I just got to do something different that allowed me to use this energy that’s probably gonna keep me from getting in trouble or into a fight’,” said Mercado. “And then you get to have those zoomed-in conversations after building a relationship with students for years of recess and after school, and then they’re like telling you, ‘I have trouble talking to my mom and I wish we could just speak about this, that, and the other.’ …It’s just like that extra group of people of adults to come alongside students and make sure they’re getting the support that’s necessary.”
Katie Gibbons, a Wild Earth instructor, agreed.
“A lot of our work is relationship centered and focused, which is very unusual in public school, and this partnership has really allowed us to take that to a deeper level,” Gibbons said. “Often things that you can’t assign a numerical grade to are swept under the rug, for good reason. It’s hard to put a number on somebody’s social emotional wellbeing. But we have children that we had in elementary school that now we’re in middle school and we’re able to provide a little continuity in the district for those children as they move through those large transitions, especially in times of global pandemic.”