Monday, August 10, 2009

PLT Works in Mississippi -- Proof Positive. Results of a Pilot Project

PLT Works in Mississippi – Proof Positive


Harold Anderson,

MS PLT Coordinator

For the twenty-two years I’ve been involved with PLT, the National Office has claimed that PLT can help raise test scores. I took their word for it. Now I know for sure.

It all started the day Jeannine May set herself on fire. Yep, she sure did – right there in an advisory board meeting in June of 2004. I was giving my semi-annual report to the board when I got to the part about the International PLT Conference that I had attended just a month before in North Dakota. I explained that the most meaningful session, to me, was the one by Oil City Elementary School Principal Mike Irwin and Environmental Education Director Cindy Kilpatrick wherein they explained how they had used PLT to turn around a failing school. I saw something was happening to Jeannine. I didn’t know if it was a stroke or an epiphany. She slumped back in her chair, her eyes glazed over, and I swear, I could faintly see a light bulb floating over her head and heard what sounded like gears clashing.

It was an epiphany.

“I was just sitting here, trying to be quite,” Jeannine said. “I’m reluctant to say anything because I’m inclined to get myself overextended, but I’m excited about what you just said. My boss, Dr Homer Wilkes, (Jeannine is the PAO for the NRCS in Mississippi) is very interested in environmental education, and I’m sure he would support me getting involved in bringing such a project here to Mississippi.” She jumped into the chair, pumped her fist into the air and screamed “Let’s go for it!” (Not really, but hey, I’m entitled to a little poetic license).

I contacted Principal Mike Irwin at Oil City and arranged a show-me trip. Jeannine, Lynn Porter (an environmental educator with the Hinds County Soil and Water Conservation District and long-time supporter of PLT) and I drove to Oil City on a scorching hot August day during the first week of school. The first thing we saw when we drive up, was a teacher and students weeding a flower bed – and it was 103 degrees! Now, my dear not-from the-South friends, 103 degrees in Mississippi and Louisiana is not the same as 103 degrees elsewhere. Stepping into it from an air-conditioned car is like getting hit with a steaming blanket. Your hair instantly goes limp and is plastered to your forehead (if you are lucky enough to have that much hair – I don’t). Your clothes are instantly sodden and cling to your body. If you raise your hand to wipe the sweat out of your eyes, sweat drips from your elbow and forms pools on the ground. Do you get the idea it was hot? And they were weeding a flower bed! Now THAT’S impressive!

Awe-stricken, we introduced ourselves to our new heroes and explained our business. The teacher led us to Mike and Cindy. They took us on a tour of this beautifully maintained 1920’s building and grounds filled with interesting environmental education nooks. PLT was everywhere; the staff (from custodians to teachers) and students were proud of their school and students were excited and eagerly learning.

We explained that we would like to do something similar in Mississippi. Cindy and Mike offered their help, and this one very important piece of advice: It won’t work unless you have someone in charge – his or her job must be to direct the program.

Full of hope, we returned to Mississippi and put together a committee. With our enthusiasm high, we decided to go for it. We secured a grant from the MS Department of Environmental Quality, in cooperation with the Central Mississippi R, C and D Council. We identified five counties scattered throughout that state where we wanted to conduct the program and hired Olivia Brunson, a retired board-certified teacher, to administer the program. The schools ranged from inner-city, to small town to rural. Four were public schools and one was a private academy. One school dropped out of the program due to the illness of two key teachers. Olivia suggested that we focus on fourth grade, since fifth graders are tested on science on standardized tests.

Olivia presented each school with an environmental teaching kit and taught the involved teachers selected activities from PLT and other environmental “Project” programs. Each participating teacher earned a $100 stipend.. Olivia developed a post-test, with the questions drawn from the state curriculum, then helped the teachers teach the afore-mentioned activities. At the conclusion of the school year, the teachers administered a post-test – with dramatic results. The average increase in test scores was 41 points! In the inner-city school it was 61 points. Now that’s impressive!

Where do we go from here? We’re still working on that. But we have dramatically proven that the National PLT office was right – PLT CAN improve test scores. You’d better believe we will use this information to further environmental education in Mississippi.

For her efforts, Jeannine May was named Mississippi’s PLT Educator of the Year for 2009.