AFS Students Make a Difference with Non Profit Neighbors

Students will remember Abington Friends as a school where “place-based” education wasn’t just theory. Place-based education binds organizations and schools to collaborate on local causes. Over the years, AFS students worked with neighboring non-profits to become community stewards. Lower school science teacher, Rosanne Mistretta, stands at the hub of the school’s community partnerships. Walk into her classroom and you will see structures made from twigs and seeds when students built fairy houses, observational drawings and photos when they planted trees along a stream, and germinating seeds to be used by a local farm.   All of these exemplify work students have done with community partners.

So how did AFS begin to partner with other non-profits? “It began with a phone call,” Rosanne recalls. “Four years ago I called Briar Bush Nature Center, a local environmental center, and asked if they would partner with us.” That call led to Briar Bush’s support for AFS’ K-12 science night, and, over the years, their involvement has evolved into a meaningful collaboration.

Nature Play Date:

Briar Bush and AFS now sponsor a community-wide event called “Nature Play Date.” One Saturday each spring, families with young children visit the school to “play” outdoors. The Nature Center and AFS host activities on the school’s grounds: children build forts and fairy houses, paint with watercolor, and create nature journals. This event reaps the benefits of AFS’s dedicated lower school educators working with the Briar Bush’s experienced teachers to create fun activities for kids.

Eliminating Walls:  

AFS has opened its campus to other organizations as one more way to further its community connections. Doing so encourages a wide variety of people to visit the campus and learn about the school. More often than not, exciting collaboration opportunities develop.

For example, AFS’ interest in caring for its mature trees grew out of its relationship with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. PHS held some of its TreeTender classes last spring at AFS, where they taught community members to plant trees and understand how trees benefit the environment.  Audience attendance included several AFS teachers, who will now work with middle school students to tag, identify, and record the coordinates of the campus trees.

Partnerships Reap Rewards:

Students have planted over 350 trees and shrubs in a riparian buffer on campus. This is a joint effort with AFS and Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership (TTF) to improve the health of the headwaters of Jenkintown Creek, part of which runs through the school’s campus.

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Staff from the Tookany Tacony-Frankford WatershedPartnership and AFS students plant over 350 trees and shrubs along Jenkintown Creek’s riparian buffer.

Grants from the William Penn Foundation and Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection supported this effort. “Planting with the kids was great,” notes TTF Executive Director Julie Slavet. “Part of the reason the project got funded was because of the educational component. The level to which AFS has embraced this work as part of the curriculum is beyond what we could ever have hoped.” This fall, students and TTF staff will install a rain garden and swale to manage runoff from the school’s parking lot.

Challenges:

As with most good things, there are challenges. For Rosanne, the biggest issue is “turnover” between community directors and staff. She advises other schools, “If your contact leaves an organization, it takes awhile to bring the new people up to speed. Never assume the relationship between a school and a partner is static. New directors come in. You have to keep re-educating as to why the partnerships are so important.”

“Real Life” Lessons:

The various environmental partnerships are a particularly rich and fruitful example of the range of relationships that AFS has been intentionally forging over the past ten years. Head of School, Rich Nourie reflects: “Our partner relationships multiply resources, sharpen our thinking and expand our imaginations for what is possible.”

School-community partnerships enable students to gain awareness beyond their classroom walls. When students are exposed to a broad variety of societal and cultural issues, they benefit from the different perspectives. And in the process, they realize they can make a difference.

Author Mary Ann Boyer, a former science teacher, advises schools on sustainability initiatives for Boyer Sudduth Environmental Consultants (www.boyersudduth.com).  Article originally published in PAISBOA's Friday Flyer Volumber XVI September 2015 newsletter.