Downvalley Migrations: Expanding ACES Education Programs

One-hour classes, once a week for students in grades K-5. Two schools a year for three years. One ACES Educator—me—to teach environmental education (EE) to 2,878 students in the RE-2 School District. 
 

Starting in the fall of 2018, I began to puzzle with the different places and people in the RE-2 District who would receive in-school ACES Environmental Education (EE) in their public schools. As I write from the finish line (a few years later in 2021) I appreciate the collaborative effort between the ACES Education team and the administrators, teachers and students at the six RE-2 elementary schools: Kathryn Senor, Elk Creek, Cactus Valley, Wamsley, Highland, and Graham Mesa. 

 

Though I can now see the immense success of these programs, the process wasn’t always easy. The difficulties of putting these pieces together were exacerbated by unexpected challenges–like the tragic death of ACES’ Education Director in 2019 and the onset of a global pandemic last year.

 

My guiding light through these unexpected events was ACES’ mission to educate for environmental responsibility and my personal “why” — to provide ACES programs to students who happen to live further away, so they, too, could have regular access to environmental education in their schools. EE welcomes students to explore their surroundings in order to learn about the local ecosystems, plants, and wildlife. Students’ knowledge of nature empowers them to care for the environment now and in the future.

 


Students from Kathryn Senor Elementary School at the top of Aspen Mountain during an ACES snow science field program.

 

This work was made possible by our donors, including funding from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), an organization that invests a portion of Colorado Lottery proceeds in stewardship and conservation efforts. In 2017, GOCO awarded a grant to Garfield County Outdoors, a collaborative initiative of school districts and local organizations (including ACES), to connect youth and families in the RE-2 and Garfield 16 School Districts with the outdoors.

 

Each school in the district welcomed me with a well-planned teaching schedule and access to teaching resources — even coveted printer access. Each grade-level team of teachers at the district schools collaborated (and in some cases co-taught) with me to learn the lessons and include them in their future curriculum. The students were just as encouraging, eager to share their stories and questions about the environmental topics we were exploring.

 

Kitty Winograd reads her students a book.
Third graders at Cactus Valley Elementary were introduced to pictures of diverse landforms on Earth's surface, engaging with the ways ocean floors, mountains and canyons may change over time.
 

My downvalley ACES experience was deeply rewarding because the schools I worked with welcomed my presence with enthusiasm. I was able to fill a niche at these schools while furthering ACES’ mission and sharing EE with the greater community. I had the opportunity to coordinate with teachers and connect with hundreds of students. The kids greeted me with a giggle at my cat-inspired nickname and, eventually, an excited hug at my weekly return.

 

Every natural object or tool I brought with me — a bear pelt, granite rock, an eagle’s wing, a mouse’s skull or solar panels and magnifying glasses — were both familiar and astonishing to RE-2 students. Students could easily identify the objects, but they couldn’t name why they sparked such joy and excitement. Touching the soft down feathers of an eagle’s wing or feeling the stiff flight feathers send a powerful push of wind against their faces made their eyes say “WOW.” These students (and most students I know) are drawn to nature so strongly that I, in a sense, did nothing but guide one hour of time to explore and learn more about a topic that embodies all that is wonderful and curious — the natural world around them.

 


Kitty Winograd with her students at Rock Bottom Ranch harvesting kale from the Children's Garden.

 

It didn’t take long for the excitement of ACES to spread throughout the schools — even to students that I didn't directly teach. Passing students in the hall with my eagle wing or bear pelt in tow, hushed exclamations of “What is that?” and “Is it real?” trailed after me in each of the six schools. While at times implementing these programs was logistically complicated, I soon felt at home within these schools and their communities.

 

In 2018, the finish line (the end of the three years teaching in RE-2) where I now stand looked awfully distant. Despite the challenges we experienced while putting these programs into place, we knew that the investment in our community would be worth it. Today, I see the beginning of a longstanding dedication to sharing EE with our downvalley community.

 

At ACES, our mission is to educate for environmental responsibility. Part of our goal involves engaging as many people and students as possible with meaningful learning opportunities. Whether it begins with an eye-catching wing or a box of shiny rocks, these experiences provide students with a deeper understanding of and connection to their local environments, and will plant the seed for a lifetime of environmental stewardship.

 

Kitty Winograd, Rock Bottom Ranch Community Programs Coordinator
 

- Kitty Winograd, Rock Bottom Ranch Community Programs Coordinator