OSSE Testimony of Dr. Jessica Sanders 03-11-2020

Councilmember David Grosso 
Committee on Education 
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW 
Washington, D.C. 20004 

March 11, 2020  

Subject: Casey Trees Comments: Performance Oversight for the Office of the State Superintendent for Education 

 Dear Councilmember Grosso, 
 Casey Trees is a nonprofit dedicated to restoring, enhancing and protecting the tree canopy of our nation’s capital. We plant trees, advocate for tree protection and teach students of all ages on the value of our District’s trees and green spaces 

The mission of the Office of the State Superintendent for Education is to close the achievement gap and ensure students of all ages and backgrounds are prepared to succeed both in school and in life. Time and again we have seen OSSE achieve this. From college prep courses and mental health support to healthy living programs and specialized education classes, we applaud OSSE for their diligence in providing students educated in the District with the tools they need to succeed beyond their academic years.   

One aspect of this is OSSE’s environmental literacy program. In 2010, the D.C. Council passed the Healthy Schools Act, creating a goal of providing all District students with an environmental education. Since then, OSSE, along with other stakeholders, developed an Environmental Literacy Plan, outlining steps for achieving this goal. As a result of this planning, thousands of students now have access to environmental literacy programs that align with the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards. We thank OSSE for their leadership in the creation of this Plan and hope that they are expeditious in updating it during this coming year. Since the Environmental Literacy Plan was first written, the District’s environmental education goals have become more strenuous. However, there has not been a standardized way to measure this progress. Currently, the success of the programs and the advancement of environmental literacy in the District is based on the standardize test scores for biology. While this does measure changes in District wide environmental literacy progress, it does not reflect the success of the Environmental Literacy Advancement Grant (ELAG) that was created as a result of the Healthy Schools Act. We also ask that the new Plan include measurable achievement standards for the ELAG programsAnecdotally, grantees can share the successes of their individual programs as it relates to their project goals in their mid-project and final-project reporting, but these are not standardized across the grant and only report on organizational progress toward their grant goals, not the progress of the students that participate in the programContinuing to improve the tracking of these programs and students understanding of environmental literacy are a critical part in demonstrating the success of ELAG as a program. 

The interdisciplinary nature of environmental science makes it a necessary part of a child’s education. An environmental literacy curriculum includes topics related to biology and chemistry, but it also weaves in concepts from math, reading and writing. Today, 36 percent of public and public charter schools have environmental education courses1 and even more have access to alternative environmental programs, such as those taught by third party educators. This is in large part thanks to OSSE’s Environmental Literacy Advancement Grant, of which Casey Trees is a recipient. Unfortunately, in the last budget cycle, the annual funding for ELAG was cut almost in half. For the ELAG Fiscal Years 2017 and 2018 grant cycle, $400,000 was appropriated each year for grant fundingHowever, only $215,000 in funding was available for the most recent grant cycle (Fiscal Year 2019)We urge the Council to restore this funding in the coming budget cycle. Washington, D.C. has a goal of having every student educated in the District taught environmental and sustainability concepts and, while more schools than ever are signed up to receive ELAG funded programming, the decreased funding will make it harder for these recipients to actually reach all of these studentsALL students in all eight Wards should have access to environmental education programming. ELAG is able to bring subject matter experts into schools with a readymade curriculum so schools that may not have the staff capacity to create and run their own environmental education classes are able to provide these courses for their students 

 The cost to run a program such as this is not high. For the Cleaner Air, Tree by Tree program that Casey Trees hosts with Cleaner Air Partners, it costs $82 per student to run the program2. This includes the cost of class preparations, instruction time and supplies. There are 6,010 fifth graders enrolled in D.C. public and D.C. public charter schools3. If we are to reach each of these students, the District would need to invest $492,820 annually. However, the value of this course for the students far exceed this cost. Outdoor learning can make students 50 percent more attentive to the lessons being given and 33 percent more likely to participate in future learning experiences4. Together, these benefits help students become more self-directed in their learning, foster creative and critical thinking and increases students’ confidence. It can also help them develop leadership skills and build peer-to-peer bonds, decrease stress and anxiety, mitigate symptoms of depression and promote outdoor activities. 

When we invest in our students, we invest in our future. OSSE’s mission is to work purposefully in partnership with other education systems to sustain, accelerate and deepen progress for D.C. students and Casey Trees feels lucky to be a part of this. By providing students across the District with all of the tools they need to succeed, they can be a brighter future. 

Thank you for the opportunity to submit comments on the Office of the State Superintendent for Education’s performance for 2019. If you have any questions or would like to follow up, please contact me at jsanders@caseytrees.org or 202-349-1905.  

Jessica Sanders, PhD, PMP 
Director of Science and Policy 
Casey Trees 

Appendix I – 2019 Cleaner Air Tree by Tree PDF