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By C. Jayden Smith

A recent trip to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center for Marblehead Elementary kindergartners and first-graders has reflected the manner in which the school looks to reinvent itself.

The trip in question, to see sea lions released into the ocean, capped off an environmental-based learning project that the students had worked on—and the kind of project-based learning Marblehead will institute a lot more of in the coming years.

Siobhan Simmon, a kindergarten teacher, has taught at the school for four years and has participated in PMMC’s “Change the Life of a Sea Lion” project with her classes for seven.

Simmon called the unit a “passion project” in an interview with San Clemente Times, because she sees the students become advocates for seals and sea lions.

PMMC officials recently visited Marblehead to talk about the center and its functions, explaining what role the students have in caring for and helping to rehabilitate the animals, which are at risk because of ocean pollution and malnutrition.

“This is just getting the students to understand that these are our local oceans, our local beaches; these are local animals that we need to take care of due to ocean pollution,” Simmon said. “They’re getting sick, and how can we help?”

The students quickly get involved after they recognize that the seals and sea lions are part of their local environment, seeing the animals at the San Clemente Pier or at the Dana Point Harbor.

This year, Simmon’s students raised more than $2,200 to go toward the PMMC, with every dollar equating to one pound of fish to be fed to the animals. They fundraised through lemonade stands, by recycling, and by doing extra chores around the house.

Simmon enjoyed seeing them step up for the cause.

“The seals can’t go out there and get help on their own, so we’re there to help them,” she added.

After the fundraiser ended and the students wrote reports about their research, the center invited both the kindergarten and first-grade classes to participate in the sea lion release, where they got to see the rehabilitated animals return to their natural habitat.

The release event is Simmon’s favorite part of the project unit each year, as she watches the students’ efforts come to fruition. Additionally, she finds joy in the process of counting the donation money and cheering on her class.

Such project-based learning has become common in Marblehead’s curriculum since it was designated as an Environmental Studies Academy about eight years ago, according to Principal Jamie Goodwyn.

As one of seven schools participating in Capo Forward, the Capistrano Unified School District’s initiative for schools facing declining enrollment, Marblehead was reimagined to provide an alternative emphasis on learning.

“The Environmental Studies Academy at our school is just implementing a focus on the environment throughout all of our studies,” Goodwyn said. “What we want to do is cultivate students to grow up and be Earth-conscious—conserve, reduce, recycle—that type of thing.”

Initiatives at the school include a “Green Team” of students who help with recycling efforts and ask teachers to weave an environmental focus into learning opportunities throughout the school year.

Goodwyn gave an example of a kindergarten-level science project that promotes questions of how students can contribute to save and help the Earth.

However, the pandemic deeply impacted the ESA program. Social distancing barred classes from participating in collaborative projects and getting into the environment, which are substantial components.

“We still did small things like recycling programs, and we still did the fun science projects and had a focus on the environment, but it wasn’t to the extent that it was before the pandemic,” said Goodwyn. “That’s why we’re rebooting it for the fall.”

To start this revamp, she asked her teachers what lessons in curriculum and professional development training they needed, and she has since purchased instruction materials that include various STEM projects with an environmental focus.

The school is also analyzing whether to add a Project Learning Tree program, which provides more lessons to get students in the environment, and is working with the California Education and the Environment Initiative, a state program that immerses students in science standards through an environmental lens.

“It takes those three programs and creates one focus over an extended period of time, like this project was,” Goodwyn added. “This marine mammal project was a perfect example of what project-based learning is.”

The students were faced with a guiding question and had to solve the question through different programs and lessons before reaching a conclusion and presenting their results.

Simmon described project-based learning as authentic, in that it involves real world experiences, and encourages the students to communicate, think critically, be creative, and use all the skills necessary to be successful while learning subject standards.

“It’s just a way for the kids to really have hands-on learning,” said Simmon. “It’s inquiry-based; it gets messy. That’s what I would say about project-based learning. It’s messy in the classroom, but that’s when you know the students are engaged and learning, and they have that buy-in.”

An “Environmental Ambassador” will be added to their student council to provide additional perspective to activities around the school and keep an environment-friendly focus at the forefront of everyone’s minds, according to Goodwyn.

Going forward, they’ll look to implement recycling competitions and promote using recycled water bottles.

With the school’s garden, a shift to a farm-to-table focus will emphasize the “why” behind the foods they grow and how their actions impact the rest of the world. 

“We’re going to have (weekly) grade-level Environmental Studies labs, where students will go in and be able to do all of their science experiments and their STEM projects,” Goodwyn said.

All of these efforts are intended to build toward the students’ long-term future. The school looks to hold career days with representation from professionals in environment-based careers, implement the district’s career technology pathway programs into the studies, and give the students experiences in which they can join the environmental club at San Clemente High or major in environmental studies at the university level.

The new implementation plan will span three years, with the 2021-22 school year serving as a time to gear up for the inclusion of the bigger components in the fall and onward, such as teacher development and involving the students in their learning.

During the 2023-24 school year, Marblehead wants to add the extra components that the state and county offer, including the Orange County Department of Education’s Project Zero Waste—all of which are part of the effort to get young students started on the right foot.

“Mrs. Goodwin is really reinvigorating that environmental education, and I can’t wait to see what Marblehead is going to do next year,” said Simmon. “It’s going to be awesome.”

C. Jayden Smith

C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.

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