DC Students Discover a Beautiful Schoolroom: The Great Outdoors

The 2016 RiverSmart School teacher cohort gets its hands dirty – and has a lot of fun! Photo: Anacostia Watershed Society

How do you plant a tree so that it has a good chance of surviving? What’s the difference between a native species and an invasive species? How does a rain barrel work? These are just a few of the questions that some DC students will be pondering this year as a part of their studies. The RiverSmart Schools program(www.doee.dc.gov/service/riversmart-schools) is providing students with an outdoor classroom including schoolyard greening projects that create wildlife habitat, emphasize the use of native plants, highlight water conservation, and retain and filter stormwater runoff. RiverSmart Schools is a partnership between DC’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) and the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) (www.anacostiaws.org/).

In February DOEE and AWS announced the five 2016 participating RiverSmart Schools. Capitol Hill’s Payne Elementary School, located at 1445 C St. SE, was selected for this year’s cohort along with Hart Middle School located in Southeast DC’s Congress Heights and Bruce-Monroe Elementary School, Mundo Verde Public Charter School, and Seaton Elementary School, all located in Northwest. Each participating school will receive in-kind (technical and material) contributions along with financial support ranging from $3,500 up to $70,000, depending on the scale of the project. Schools will also receive funding to maintain the sites for the next five years. 

The RiverSmart Schools program was initiated in 2006, and since then 43 District schools have participated. RiverSmart Schools is pragmatic in its approach. DC is one of the few major US cities with two wild rivers running through it, giving residents an intrinsic and unique link to the environment. The RiverSmart schools “are preparing the next generation of conservation leaders,” said Ariel Trahan, director of education programs at AWS. “The students’ energy and passion is helping to restore and protect the Anacostia River, as well as the entire DC area.” 

To become a RiverSmart School at least three teachers must commit to participate in professional development workshops, community action days, and schoolyard team events. An applicationmust be completed by Oct. 31. Selected teachers in each school will receive a minimum of 16 hours of professional development on watershed ecology as well as lesson plans and curricula that support DC environmental education standards. “Through RiverSmart Schools we’re giving the District’s school children cleaner, healthier environments in which to learn, and the knowledge and skills to lead the District to a greener future,” said Tommy Wells, Director of DOEE. 

RiverSmart Schools is a part of DOEE’s broader RiverSmart program(www.doee.dc.gov/riversmart), aimed at reducing stormwater runoff into waterways by providing financial incentives (rebates!) and education for the installation of green infrastructure such as rain barrels, green roofs, rain gardens, permeable pavement, and shade trees. The program is a vital part of the District’s Sustainable DC Plan (www.sustainabledc.org/) initiated under Mayor Vincent Gray’s administration and embraced by Mayor Bowser. This plan sets out ambitious but realistic goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions and improve the livelihoods of all District residents by 2032. It includes a goal of rendering all of DC’s waterways “fishable and swimmable” by the 2032 date – including the Anacostia River.   

The District is taking its commitment to its rivers very seriously. The DC Bag Bill went into effect in 2009 and has significantly reduced the number of bags found in our waterways while raising more than $10million in conservation revenue. A January 2016 law prohibiting the use of expanded polystyrene foam (EPS), commonly known by the brand name Styrofoam, in District restaurants is expected to further reduce the amount of trash in waterways.

These initiatives are making a real difference, and if you haven’t visited the Anacostia River lately, you’re in for a treat. During an early morning kayak or canoe outing you might glimpse one of DC’s resident bald eagles soaring overhead and find a unique way to explore Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Meanwhile, 15 miles of the eventual 28-mile circular route of the Anacostia River Trail(www.anacostiawaterfront.org) are now complete.

If you need an excuse to get outside, remember that April is Earth Day month. There are a wide variety of outdoor events around the District (see http://dc.about.com/od/specialevents/a/EarthDay.htm). In addition to the RiverSmart Schools program, the Anacostia Watershed Society supports year-round educational, stewardship, and recreational activities for people of all ages. Check out their calendar at www.anacostiaws.org/calendar/2016-04. The Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Fest has become a popular springtime rite of passage, and this year’s event will be held on April 30. Tickets can be purchased through the website at www.kingmanislandbluegrass.com/.

Create your own RiverSmart school. Take advantage of DC’s great outdoors. Get outside and enjoy it!

Catherine Plume is a lifelong environmentalist, a writer, and a blogger for the DC Recycler: www.DCRecycler.blogspot.com; Twitter @DC_Recycler.

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