'Place-based learning' invigorates school with real-world experience

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Correction: This story and photo captions have been updated to correct the spelling of Green School lead coordinator Eradajere Oleita’s name.

Detroit — After deciding, in class, what they would add to their community to make it healthier, Haneen Duais and Ashley Azpeitia explained what they like about science in the sixth grade at the Clippert Multicultural Magnet Honors Academy.

“At my old school, we didn’t do stuff like this,” Haneen said. “We just learned science, without the community stuff. I like how we help the community, how we get involved.”

Green School lead coordinator Eradajere Oleita speaks to Clippert Multicultural Magnet Honors Academy students about real world activities off campus during a recent visit to the Detroit school.

Ashley smiled and said learning science is more fun when she can see how it works in the world around her, like when her class installed a rain garden outside their southwest Detroit school to absorb stormwater and reduce runoff. 

“I enjoy doing the fun little experiments with the class, because it makes me learn more and makes me more interested in science,” she said. “In my old school, we only did indoor stuff." 

Applying the theory that both education and communities improve when students learn outside of the classroom, the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition helps provide “place-based learning” experiences at about 30 schools in Metro Detroit, including Clippert, which is part of the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

SEMIS is a partnership between schools and communities that's supported by Eastern Michigan University's College of Education. 

Clippert Multicultural Magnet Honors Academy teacher Tracy Ortiz (left), listens to student Ashley Azpetia as she speaks about Mrs. Ortiz's program to engage students in real world activities off campus.

The approach is intended to engage students at a deeper level, improve learning, grades and test scores, and have an impact beyond schools while connecting children to society.

Place learning “is an old idea," said SEMIS executive director Ethan Lowenstein. "But it’s getting increasing traction now. It’s kind of the reverse order of things: Instead of the textbook coming first, the textbook becomes a resource and direct experience becomes central.”

Haneen and Ashley's science teacher, Tracy Ortiz, had initiated place learning with her sixth graders before SEMIS was introduced at Clippert, but the program has greatly expanded the approach.

“I was responsible for teaching water quality,” Ortiz said. “The best way to teach water quality is to actually take the kids out to the river and have them conduct the tests. And that’s actually how I started with the outdoor environmental piece."

With SEMIS, “they provide the professional development and come in and help with my place-based education plan. They come out once a week to work with the kids, and the kids just love it.”

The class has ventured out to conduct an environmental inventory of the area around the school, just north of Clark Park.

Clippert Multicultural Magnet Honors Academy student Ashley Azpetia raises her hand to answer a questions with fellow student Haneen Duais, right,  during teacher Tracy Ortiz's program to engage students in real world activities off campus.

“And the kids would write down what the strengths and weaknesses were, and from there they would develop a project, of their own choosing, that they wanted to work on,” Ortiz said. 

“We have several gardens around the building now. We have rain gardens, a huge pollinator garden that is a nationally registered way station for the Monarch butterfly. So we are into the Monarch conservation with the garden registered with the National Wildlife Federation.”

Two outdoor classrooms flank the school on McKinstry Street, just north of West Vernor. Whole Foods supplied one with a grant of $2,000.

There are two vegetable gardens out back.

“And there was an issue in the back of the building with standing water,” Ortiz said. “It was just a nasty pile, standing there. And the kids installed another rain garden that took care of it.

“I think it’s just more impactful when the kids are able to go out and choose the project that they want to do. The learning is more meaningful for them that way too.”

Ortiz and other teachers said the success of place-bas learning also gives them a needed boost.

“This was the catalyst to get me reinvigorated,” said Sheryl Evans, a science teacher at Clippert, and a 21-year-veteran of Detroit's public schools.

“I was introduced to it at my former school, Frederick Douglass (Academy for Young Men), it must have been two years ago. One of the teachers who came to Frederick Douglass was a SEMIS partner, and he invited met to one of the symposiums,” Evans said.

“I did not know this kind of work was going on, and I was in my 18th or 19th year and I was kind of feeling kind like: Can I do this for another 10 or 20 years? ... I felt as though I needed something else to get me through that last leg of my career.”

To get her program started, the teacher got assistance from the Youth Energy Squad of EcoWorks, a nonprofit group in Detroit that stresses sustainability in community development.

Clippert Multicultural Magnet Honors Academy student Haneen Duais (center) is eager to answer a question during teacher Tracy Ortiz's program to engage students in real world activities off campus.

The Youth Energy Squad is a group of project and classroom facilitators, some with backgrounds in career development and science, technology, engineering and mathematics, who run special classes, like brainstorming on making a community healthier, in which Haneen, Ashley and their classmates participated, this week.

“We basically facilitate green conversations within classrooms and do projects in the city of Detroit and outside,” said Eradajere Oleita,’ one of the squad workers assisting in Ortiz’s science class, along with Mekiah Austin and Zavon Eichelberger.

The original financing for SEMIS came from the settlement of a $10 million lawsuit against Detroit Edison and Consumers Energy for loss of fish attributable to the operation of an energy plant in Ludington.

Green School lead coordinator Eradajere Oleita  speaks to Clippert Multicultural Magnet Honors Academy students about real world activities off campus during a visit to the Detroit school on Wednesday, December 11, 2019.

Money went to the Great Lakes Fishery Trust, which provided a 10-year grant for place-based education.

“It’s pretty unique because this is the only state in the country that has this statewide network,” Lowenstein said.

Another aspect of the program, Lowenstein said, is pupils and adults both learn that children are capable of having considerable impact.

“Older generations don’t see younger people as being able to act now to change to the society,” he said. “They’re given this message that they have to wait until voting age.

“So a deeper purpose of this learning is to help younger people become authors of their own stories and authors of their community story.

“We’ve literally seen young people stand up straighter when they have so many opportunities for leadership.”