“I am working with a sophomore right now who is struggling at school, and I had yet to hear him say more than a few words in our class,” says Kat Robbins. “We visited our school’s undeveloped 4.5-acre forest and he lit up! The possibility of developing that resource as an outdoor classroom lit a fire under him! So, I’ve been meeting with him in his free blocks to plan out how we might achieve our goals. He has called the Town Planner, written a letter to abutting landowners, and researched building codes. He is (mostly!) getting his other schoolwork done so that he has time to work on this project, and he’s not even getting credit for it yet. We need students who are truly engaged, even if it’s in really out of the box ways.”

Kat is the Partnership Coordinator between Woodstock Union High School and Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, and this month we are taking a look at how she supports place based environmental education (PBEE) in Woodstock and surrounding towns with her unique position. Our hope is that Kat’s work—and this partnership between the National Park Serviceand Woodstock Union High School—will inspire you to consider ways you can develop positions that can support PBEE in your community. 

Kat’s position, funded at 60% by the National Park Service, and 40% with local school dollars, is a Cooperative Agreement between the National Park Service and Windsor Central Supervisory Union (WCSU). She took on this role in 2011. 

In a typical day, Kat will:

  • Support teachers and students to connect with resources in their community to enhance their learning. 
  • Work with teachers/students on discrete units of learning (like the AP Environmental Science class watershed exploration), both with direct instruction/support in the classroom but also behind the scenes work 
  • Co-teach some semester long elective classes like Wilderness Studies and Food Systems
  • Advise the National Honor Society and the student environmental club, Earth Beat
  • Manage the school garden and cafeteria relationship
  • Support C3, or the Center of Community Connections program, which is the Flexible Pathway program that allows students to access Independent Studies, Internships, Service Learning, and Career Exploration, and online learning opportunities
  • Coordinate the Internship Program at Marsh-Billings & Saint Gaudens 
  • Facilitate a leadership development curriculum and extended learning for all park interns while directly supervising several interns
  • Help identify and facilitate work projects for the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps and Student Conservation Association crews that work at the national parks

Kat says, “We are really working to break down walls or barriers between the community and the school. Many community members feel like they don’t really understand what type of learning happens in the school, and yet also want to leverage youth voice and energy to get projects done! Students also often need to have real-world applications and context of their learning for it to feel meaningful and relevant. I try to facilitate this. I think this is also helping to build a culture of stewardship in our community, building on the legacy of conservation at the Park.”

Her unique position began when she was working for the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VYCC). VYCC was running an alternative school program in partnership with the NPS and WUHS. She supervised the program for 2 years and then transitioned into leading it. After the first year, WUHS brought the position in-house and it evolved to be a direct partnership between the NPS and WUHS.

Our school district recently created a Portrait of a Graduate, and Stewardship was identified as one of the main characteristics we wish our students to exhibit! Place-based learning helps achieve all of the Portrait of a Graduate characteristics and advances many of the objectives listed in our district’s new strategic plan as well.”

When asked what she thinks must be in place for other schools to create this kind of position to support PBEE, she reflects that, “Both organizations have to embrace the idea that place-based learning will enhance student learning. Supervisors need to be flexible, open-minded, partnership oriented, and patient. Someone needs to be willing to manage the agreements, budget, and paperwork side of things. And teachers should have some willingness or interest to engage in PBE.”

Kat is a member of the Steering Committee of the Upper Valley Teaching Place Collaborative and can be reached with questions at: KRobbins@wcsu.net