Classroom educators and natural resource professionals are making strides toward providing every student in the Bay region with a “meaningful watershed experience,” but no one is certain whether this goal will be met by the close of 2005 as promised.

The Bay Program began promoting educational efforts in 1998. The Chesapeake 2000 agreement then went a step further with a commitment to provide every student in the Bay watershed with at least one substantive outdoor educational experience before graduation, beginning with the class of 2005.

At its annual meeting in January, the Chesapeake Executive Council reaffirmed its support for this goal and praised the efforts that are under way. In a signed endorsement, the council stressed that the Bay will soon be in the hands of its youngest citizens, who need to “make informed choices, have a sense of history and excitement” about the Bay and, most importantly, have “an understanding of how their individual actions affect this national treasure.”

The goal has spawned improvements in both the quantity and quality of environmental education programs throughout the Bay watershed. But the wide variety of local situations, as well as administrative tracking quandaries, makes it difficult to garner a detailed assessment of progress.

“When we signed the directive back in 2000, there was very little in the way of coordinated efforts,” said Shannon Sprague, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administation’s Chesapeake Bay Office, who staffs the Bay Program’s Education Workgroup. “Now there is a tremendous amount of activity, much more than we have hard data for.”

Even with limited data, it’s clear that the meaningful watershed education goal has strengthened partnerships between classroom teachers and natural resource professionals who support the effort and enrich the curriculum.

For example, state agencies and nonprofit organizations are developing and sustaining programs that connect classroom learning with real-world projects. They provide opportunities and technical support that help students plant streamside forests, nurture underwater grasses, raise and release young shad, and tackle environmental improvements on school grounds.

The watershed education goal has also spawned increased financial support for school districts and their partner organizations.

NOAA established the Bay Watershed Education and Training Program, known as “B-WET,” specifically to advance this goal. Since 2002, B-WET has pumped more than $8 million into environmental educational programs at schools across the Bay region, as well as the nonprofits and government agencies that support them.

In Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay Trust realigned its grant-making priorities to support the goals of the Chesapeake 2000 agreement, including meaningful watershed experiences. The Trust’s support is invaluable for helping Maryland teachers meet this goal, according to Rebecca Bell, environmental education specialist with the Maryland State Department of Education.

“The Chesapeake Bay Trust has been critical, because they provide the money for schools and individual teachers to get these projects off the ground,” she said.

Bell also said that the watershed education goal has become a rallying point for protecting environmental programs in budget negotiations.

“When the directive came out, that meant the governor said it was important—and that’s something you can take to your board of education,” she said.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality also awards grants to help schools implement projects that meet the criteria for meaningful watershed education. The department awards approximately $60,000 toward 100 grants per year.

Ann Regn directs environmental education at the Virginia DEQ and chairs the Bay Program’s Education Workgroup. She said that creative partnerships and financial resources have proved to be a powerful combination.

“The state departments of education put a lot of things into motion just through good working relationships with these other groups—a lot of good work with really very little money. Now, the money is doing even more to get kids out on the water and put equipment in their hands.”

While educators are reaching more students with increasingly richer experiences of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, quantifying the results remains difficult.

One issue is securing an accurate head count of the students who participate in these programs.

A second issue is evaluating whether the programs meet the definition of a “meaningful” watershed education experience.

The degree to which any school pursues the standard of environmental education outlined in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement is a voluntary, local-level decision. Likewise, participating school districts vary in their methods and resources for tracking the effort.

Some administrators count students, while some count grade levels or classes; others don’t keep count at all. There is also the potential for duplication, with some students receiving multiple opportunities through the school as well as nonprofit service providers.

Evaluating the substance of the students’ experience poses additional challenges.

The Bay Program defines a “meaningful watershed education experience” as one combining three fundamental components: classroom preparation, an outdoor experience that applies or advances classroom learning and reflection or analysis.

“This directive raised the bar for what is being done with students in the field and in the classroom,” Regn said. “We have set a standard for the country by defining a meaningful watershed education experience. This is rigorous academics, not just looking at birds or feeling good about being outside.”

To paint a complete picture of progress toward the 2005 goal, Bay Program partners would not only need consistent tracking of participation but also some measure of how well the curriculum follows this ambitious model.

“With limited resources, it’s a dilemma,” Sprague said. “Should we spend those resources counting the students, or reaching more of them?”

While the jurisdictions continue to work through this question, the picture will likely remain incomplete.

Nevertheless, research in the education field continues to demonstrate that environmental education is a powerful tool for creating a stewardship ethic and improving student achievement across the board. Regn argued that it is vital for the future of the Bay as well.

“It’s an investment,” she explained. “In the long run, it’s imperative. Rather than putting our efforts into retraining people when they become adults, and trying to persuade them to recycle or keep oil out of storm drains, we will be talking to them all along. We can’t predict what the solutions will be, but we’ll need adults who are receptive about what we are doing and why.

“Then, we can get to the business of solving the problem instead of arguing about whether or not the problem exists in the first place.”