Learning to be land stewards: Pioneer to make use of resources for environmental education

Environmental educator Jordan Cummings at Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield.

Environmental educator Jordan Cummings at Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Environmental educator Jordan Cummings on the trail system at Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield.

Environmental educator Jordan Cummings on the trail system at Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Environmental educator Jordan Cummings at Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield.

Environmental educator Jordan Cummings at Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 09-24-2023 11:46 AM

NORTHFIELD — With the most land of any school district in Massachusetts, this year the Pioneer Valley Regional School District is setting off on a long-term environmental and outdoor education initiative to make use of that natural resource.

In consideration of students’ physical and mental health, as well as fostering a connection between children and the environment around them, Pioneer is leaning into outdoor education in an effort to build skills and knowledge that will allow them to become “good stewards” of the Pioneer Valley and its wealth of nature.

“As we continue with this rejuvenation of the district, it’s critical that we identify our most important assets and Pioneer’s land is clearly one of our greatest sources of strength,” Superintendent Patricia Kinsella said. “We are in the very beginning stages of developing a program. … It will take us five to seven years to build a world-class program to which we aspire.”

During this process, the district is looking to embrace the more than 90 acres it owns on the high school’s property, as well as work with Northfield and Bernardston to amend its lease on the two elementary school properties to allow access to the surrounding woods.

To kick-start the effort, the district has hired Jordan Cummings, an outdoor educator and Advanced Placement (AP) environmental science teacher, to work with administrators, teachers and students to envision what environmental education could look like.

“It’s such a gorgeous space to learn in,” Cummings said while walking to Pioneer’s forest trail. She described her vision for the initiative as “learning through and with the land.”

Cummings joined the district this year from Antioch University’s Keene campus, where she earned a master’s degree in environmental education after teaching kindergarten and elementary school in California for nearly a decade.

In this early phase — in both her career with Pioneer and the outdoor education initiative — Cummings said her goal is to get to know the community and find organizations and experts in the valley who may be willing to work with the school on future environmental projects.

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A major aspect of her vision is getting students and teachers outdoors, even if just for a short period of time, to build comfort in both the environment and building because “school is your home away from home.”

The possibilities, she said, are endless. One example she floated is having young students find a place outdoors they can go to once a week or once a month, where they can sit, take in the sunlight and journal their experiences.

Cummings thanked the district for bringing her on and gave credit to the large team she is working with to develop this “emergent curriculum.”

“I’m not doing this in a bubble; it’s a community-learning process that we are building,” she said. “I appreciate the district is willing to take the time. … They want to build this right and build what’s best for the students and the community.”

Prior to Cummings’ arrival, the school had already launched some environmental programs stretching back to last year when a senior spearheaded the creation of the Pioneer Land Stewardship Club, which helped reinvigorate the school’s walking trails.

More recently, Bernardston resident and restoration ecologist John Lepore has been working with Bernardston Elementary School students and staff to envision how outdoor education could be implemented there.

Kinsella added that outdoor education often results in “better emotional outcomes” for students and this program could provide a “two-fold” benefit by both improving student health and preparing them for a changing world.

“We know we are living in a time of climate crisis and we need even more citizens to have deep knowledge about the environment, about access to water, about agriculture and about food systems,” Kinsella said, adding that they want to be “developing citizens who have the knowledge and skills to be good stewards of the land.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.