Boston Schoolyard Initiative: An 18-year Success Story of Collaborative Structures that Scale Impact

“The story of the Boston Schoolyards Initiative is one that needs to be shared and spread!” This was my thought after hearing a keynote speech by Kristin Metz about this initiative at the New England Environmental Educators conference last fall. Kristin graciously accepted my invitation to interview her for this blog.

For background, the Boston Schoolyards Initiative (BSI) was a public-private partnership between the City of Boston, public schools, and private foundations that created a collaborative structure and process to design and fund schoolyard spaces for play and recreation, outdoor classrooms, and curriculum integration at schools in Boston. The initiative ran for over 18 years, transformed 88 schoolyards in collaboration with local communities, with a total of $20 million invested. Thirty-two outdoor classrooms were built and 3 education programs trained 850 teachers. It’s initiatives reached 30,000 children a year. The BSI web site has lots of information and “before and after” photos of transformed schoolyards.


An Interview with Kristin Metz

1. What was your role with the initiative?

One of the objectives of BSI, as defined by the Task Force that created it, was to “encourage & support utilization of the schoolyard as vehicle for learning.” BSI created my position, Director of Education, about five years after the initiative started because they had found that the teaching elements embedded in the new schoolyards weren’t being used by teachers despite their initial enthusiasm. Over the 13 years I worked with BSI I saw my role as:

  • Providing resources and support to teachers and, with them, developing an understanding of best practices in outdoor teaching
  • Helping landscape architects understand teachers’ and students’ needs so they could design more effective, engaging spaces
  • Building the capacity of the school district to support outdoor teaching and learning.

2. What were the key things that enabled the longevity of the program?

Looking back, BSI was very successful in bringing different groups of people together to develop a collective vision and implement it. This multi-stakeholder collaboration was done at every level:

  • BSI successfully engaged a broad array of stakeholders from the start with a Task Force convened by the Mayor to design the initiative. The strategy outlined in the Task Force report guided the initiative throughout.
  • On the funding side, a Funders Collaborative brought a range of foundations together to support the work, in partnership with the City of Boston. (BSI’s staff of about three people, with some consultant support, reported to the Funders Collaborative).
  • At each school, BSI established a community design group that included members of the community and the school which developed the vision and overall design of the schoolyard.
  • The landscape architects who designed the schoolyards were brought together to share their thinking and designs of these playgrounds, gardens, and outdoor classrooms. 
  • Teachers were brought together in various configurations to explore and share their thinking about how best to integrate outdoor learning into their teaching.

In each instance, we accomplished things we never would have been able to without that level of collaboration. I think these groups succeeded because people felt engaged and saw themselves as part of a community working on a bigger vision. In turn, all that was made possible because BSI established structures that supported collaboration over time. The players changed over the 18 years, e.g., in the funders collaborative, some were involved at the start and left, new ones joined, and some of the original funders returned. The structure of the collaborative as an ongoing entity made it possible to move in and out of the work. It created a group to relate to and be part of, and a sustained conversation despite the players changing over time.

3. What are examples of how you supported these various cohorts of stakeholders in working toward a vision? What was the overarching question each were exploring?

Landscape architects: We worked hard to develop a cohort of landscape architects across the projects who were sharing their thinking, frustrations, questions, and experiences. The key question was:

What are the features of an outdoor classroom and learning landscape that maximize its usefulness for teachers and sustainability in terms of maintenance?

A big challenge in designing these spaces was how to create schoolyard habitats that are inviting yet also protect the plant materials from hundreds of little running feet. We spent years on that. A breakthrough was the design of a garden gate that had a smaller door within it, which students had to duck through. This physically changed Gatetheir demeanor when they stepped through. Other designers built on this idea and took it in new directions. Every element of the landscape design was a creative collaborative learning process, e.g., how do we create paths that invite students to explore while still providing full visibility for teachers? What kind of seating works for large groups, small groups, and independent work?

BSI did two things that sustained the cohort and learning process:

  • Schoolyard tour – Each year we built three new schoolyards and we conducted a tour focused on schoolyard and outdoor classroom design. In the fall, the landscape architects met and toured the sites from the previous year with the other landscape architects and school yard groups.
  • Annual luncheon – We held an annual luncheon for landscape architects, to share designs and discuss them. Out of it, they developed a common vocabulary and shared their thinking, and sometimes even their construction drawings and specifications. Designers took ideas from this conversation and came back the next year sharing ways they had tweaked and improved on them.

Again, landscape architects moved in and out of working on schoolyard projects over the years. The collaborative structures offered a place they could come back to where there was a continuing conversation going. No one knew how to design these outdoor classrooms when we started and no one had practical experience doing it. The first ones were a ring of stones. You can see how far the designs evolved once we had some built and were learning from the experience of teachers and students using them. That learning was exciting to both teachers and designers – it’s what made the work interesting and challenging.

OutdoorClassrooms

Teachers: We had a similar experience with the teachers. When we started out, individual teachers were doing different projects outside in schools around the city, but they were usually the only ones in their school. Students might well have outdoor lessons once or twice, if e
ver, during their elementary years. Despite teachers and administrators (not to mention students!) initial excitement, the teaching and learning features of the new schoolyards, weren’t being used in a sustained way. Teachers were under enormous pressures, with new curriculum and high stakes testing. We began to focus more explicitly on addressing their needs directly and what was useful to them. As designed, the new outdoor spaces were not a tool they could use in a seamless way to support their teaching. In order to make the spaces work for them, it was essential to collaborate closely with teachers in the design process. And it was equally important that we engaged teachers in exploring the question of what outdoor teaching could and should look like.

With teachers, the question we explored was:

How can the outdoors be useful to you as a teaching tool for the existing curriculum?

Our work with teachers focused on:

  • How outdoor teaching could support the existing Boston Public School curriculum
  • How outdoor classrooms could be designed to better serve students’ and teachers’ needs
  • Developing teacher expertise and leadership within the district on best practices in outdoor teaching
  • Working with teachers we developed guides on using the outdoors to support the existing science curriculum.

This meant that teachers were trying outdoor lessons in schools around the district and sharing their experiences with other teachers. When we took this common approach, it expanded the learning community hugely. When we linked it to the standard science curriculum, everything they did outdoors with their classes became relevant to other teachers. The more teachers tried going outside, using resources, and sharing experiences with other teachers – the richer that conversation became. Because the outdoor classrooms were similar in design, (e.g., BSI created a model that used consistent features applied in site specific ways) it gave teachers in schools across the district a common experience that was transferable from school to school, and their individual experiences became more relevant to the experiences of teachers in other schools.

We did not do a single workshop or develop any print or video materials in 13 years that was not co-developed with teachers. Not one. Everything was done with teachers, usually they were offered some stipend from our funding, e.g., they got paid to teach a course or to pilot a curriculum unit.

A teacher leader cohort evolved of teachers who worked on developing both the curriculum support materials and professional development courses on using the outdoors to support science. Over time, there were five generations of teachers who had learned from each other and then trained subsequent cohorts. That was the most effective thing we did: to support the development of teacher expertise and leadership in BPS and facilitate their sharing their expertise, and questions, with each other. We linked into existing structures wherever we could, e.g., the science professional development courses were integrated into an existing teacher leadership program in the Science Department.

Schoolyard Design: The collaborative structure for the schoolyard design was a one-year community design process at each school. We did 88 projects overall and each one had its own design group. We shared the learning between these groups through the involvement of BSI staff who facilitated this process and by documenting the collective learning in printed materials that discussed the value of various design elements.

People feel they were part of something larger, something that was happening across the City. I believe that goes a long way. As with any community process, people came in and out, there were personalities and challenges, yet they felt like they were engaged in something important and what they were doing would affect their school beyond the moment.

4. Of all the things you learned, what advice do you have for leaders who are working to bring positive change to their communities?

Create structures that support collaboration beyond the life of the existing players – Build in supports that are looking forward and backwards, rooted in work that has come before. We often think in terms of our work in the moment. I think it’s important to think what structures can we put in place, that will continue this work effectively when we’re not here to?

Structure in support for collaboration and learning over time – Much of what we did on education side was sparked by an individual teacher’s comments or a throw away line, that they might never have taken seriously on their own. So much learning happens day to day, in the moment and gets overlooked, yet it holds the nuggets of wisdom we can learn from. Sometimes I think the most valuable thing I did was to really listen to teachers and share what they had said with other teachers. Listening is so important, and then responding to what you hear, and building on it. It is important to take seriously what people are saying about their experience…to listen and consider what the implications are. For example, we heard for two to three years that teachers couldn’t use the spaces because outdoor teaching did not fit into the curriculum. We took that seriously and addressed that concern.

Commit funding – The Boston Schoolyard Funders Collaborative provided an essential commitment of funding and time and energy. It takes time to learn. The sustained funding from the collaborative and the City gave us time not only to learn but to apply that learning on the ground. This initiative was extraordinary in the funder commitment over time. No one funder would have ever committed to fund it over 18 years. It would have stopped after discovering no one was using the gardens. We would have missed the opportunity to build on the hard learning at many steps along the way. I think it was the collaborative structure that enabled various funders to take part over the years, and the partnership between the collaborative and the City that provided the time that allowed the learning to happen.

Kristin is now doing consulting work helping schools and districts build the in-house capacity to support outdoor teaching and learning and is interested in working with foundations who would like to adopt these kinds of models. She can be reached at www.linkedin.com/in/kristinmetz

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