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Broward Becomes Nation's First Wildlife Certified School District

Sun Sentinel

Broward County Public Schools

You don't have to travel to national parks or wildlife refuges to get a real-life lesson in nature. Just walk by many of Broward County's public schools.

There, you're likely to find butterfly gardens, native plants and owl nests. And because of that, Broward is the first school district in the nation to receive system wide certification from the National Wildlife Federation. Officials from the group plan to honor the district Tuesday.

The effort is particularly strong at middle schools, including Gulfstream Middle in Hallandale Beach, New River Middle in Fort Lauderdale, Silver Trail Middle in Pembroke Pines and two schools that federation officials toured Monday: Deerfield Beach Middle and Sawgrass Springs Middle in Coral Springs.

"Broward County has been really forward thinking in terms of making sure children have an opportunity get outside as part of their educational experience," said Nicole Rousmaniere, who coordinates the federation's K-12 efforts. "Over 100 [of its] schools have been certified, many teachers have been certified, and they bring in volunteers from the community."

Overall, more than 40 percent of Broward County schools have been individually certified.

Deerfield Beach Middle has received several grants to improve landscaping on campus. Starting with a few existing pine trees, science teacher Suzy Pinnell led a project to plant cypress trees and remove invasive plants. She used a $500 grant to start a butterfly garden.

She later used $10,000 in grants to add more than 500 plants and flowers around campus, including Sabal Palms, pine trees, milkweed and wildflowers. Students also put up a screech owl nest box.

Pinnell frequently takes students outside to give them environmental lessons, such as how yellow tabebuias bloom in spring, while royal poincianas bloom in summer, "and that's how you know what time of year it is."

And it's not just students who appreciate the greenery, she said.

"Friends drive by and ask, what have you done to the school? It's absolutely beautiful," she said.

Sawgrass Springs Middle has installed a covered pavilion for outdoor learning and created a vegetable garden, a butterfly garden and nature walkways throughout the campus.

District-wide certification has taken years to accomplish, officials said.

While many schools were involved for years, the systemwide effort took off in 2007, when the district entered into an environmental partnership with Broward County's NatureScape program. The two organizations share resources and expertise, develop curriculum and create and maintain outdoor learning classrooms.

"Teaching children how to protect, conserve, and nurture our environment is a lesson that will last a lifetime and can change the way a child experiences and views the world," said Broward County Vice Mayor Kristin Jacobs, who initiated the NatureScape program.

And the benefits go beyond the science lessons.

"Kids are spending much more time indoors than they used to," Rousmaniere said. "If we can provide them options to have a safe outdoor experience, it's better for them emotionally, better for them academically, and there of course are the heath benefits with childhood obesity. If you can get kids outside and playing, it's better for them overall.''