Kids need environmental literacy

Every child deserves the right to discover and enjoy our natural world — to catch a fish, camp under the stars, follow a trail and play and learn outdoors in countless other ways. These life-changing experiences help children grow stronger, smarter and healthier, and develop a sense of responsibility for our water, land and wildlife. This is why I created the Maryland Partnership for Children in Nature in 2008 to develop a plan to make sure every Maryland child has the opportunity to learn about and connect with nature.

I am happy to report that the State Board of Education is now considering a remarkable proposal that grew out of the partnership's work — a regulation that would require all of our young people to be environmentally literate in order to graduate from high school. I want to commend state schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick and the board for voting unanimously to propose this regulation, and hope they will agree to adopt it in the coming months. I also want to thank Don Baugh, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and president of the Maryland and National No Child Left Inside Coalition for his outstanding leadership on this issue.

With the Gulf of Mexico disaster a stark reminder of what happens when people fail to safeguard our planet, few would argue against environmental literacy as an essential skill for 21st century students. With today's children spending an average of six hours a day in front of a television or computer, environmental education could even help make our children healthier. But should we spend valuable instructional time on environmental literacy when students sometimes struggle to attain basic skills?

I believe the answer is yes. Using our natural world as a context for learning helps engage students in many subjects. Studies have demonstrated that environmental education increases student achievement, sparks interest in math and science, and provides the skills necessary to contribute to and compete in an increasingly green economy.

The Crossroads School in Baltimore City is a terrific example. Here, 89 percent of the middle school's 150 students live in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and more than 80 percent of incoming sixth-graders perform below grade level in reading and math. Yet Crossroads is the only Baltimore City public middle school to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) every year since 2004. The difference: Crossroads students spend time outdoors — restoring oyster reefs and wetlands, conducting environmental research and participating in other hands-on projects through which they learn both academic and job skills.

How? Solving environmental problems inspires creative and critical thinking. Environmental study teaches young people how to integrate critical thinking with science, math, technology and reading skills. It affords them the opportunity to apply lessons learned locally on a global scale. It prepares them to join a workforce that will require environmental literacy.

Maryland has a head start, as 16 percent of our schools are certified "Green" by the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education, meaning they already include environmental education in their curricula, model best management practices and address community environmental issues.

The proposal before the State Board of Education requires no new money or new staff, but is an investment that will return incalculable benefits for our young people and our environment. It will also position us to receive much-needed federal funding for our schools. President Barack Obama has budgeted money for such initiatives. Introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes, the No Child Left Inside Act currently before Congress would reward states that have forged ahead in this area with $100 million in additional funding.

More than 200 education, environmental, recreation, religion, youth, health and business organizations across Maryland representing 630,000 people have joined the No Child Left Inside Coalition. The State Board of Education will be accepting comments on this proposal through Aug. 16, and I encourage citizens to view the proposal at http://www.dsd.state.md.us/MDRegister/3715/Assembled.htm#_Toc266696462 and register their support by e-mailing Dixie Stack at dstack@msde.state.md.us.

Those who remain skeptical of our ability to make environmental literacy a reality for Maryland students need only look to Kennard Elementary School in Queen Anne's County to see what is possible. Here, fourth- and fifth-graders addressed an environmental challenge, creating their own wetlands by diverting rainwater from the school parking lot. If these elementary school children can build a marsh in their own schoolyard, I believe we can build a first-rate environmental education program in our own collective backyard.

We can and we must. The future of our planet — and the future of our children and theirs — depends on us.

Martin O'Malley is governor of Maryland. His e-mail is governor@gov.state.md.us.

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