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TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Educational consultant Joe Tursi has teamed up with Portland Public Schools board member Mike Rosen to launch the NW Ecoliteracy Collaborative.

“So now it’s like: ‘What do I do next?’” says Mike Rosen, a Portland Public Schools board member who resigned July 1 after a protracted battle with Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services where he was a Watershed Division manager since 2003. (See: Mike Rosen sheds light on rift with city.)

The answer to that question came in the form of Joe Tursi, a family friend and master’s student at Philadelphia University. As part of his degree in sustainable design, Tursi developed a process and project to promote ecological literacy in schools.

Oberlin College Environmental Studies Professor David Orr coined the term “ecoliteracy” to mean understanding the systems of human interaction with the surrounding environment and how they can be improved.

Calling their project NW Ecoliteracy Collaborative, Rosen and Tursi hope to grow it into state standards for sustainability education, such as those in Washington and Vermont.

For now, they are in talks with KairosPDX Charter School and are working to partner with several organizations.

“We’ve gotten some really positive response in the Kairos community,” Rosen says of the 2-year-old North Portland K-5 school that caters primarily to students of color.

Mike Mercer, executive director of Northwest Earth Institute, says he’s been intrigued by the project since he first heard about it over the winter and hopes to offer administrative support and an umbrella nonprofit status to the collaborative.

Asked if he is worried about Rosen’s rift with the city affecting the project, Mercer says no.

“I’m not worried about it at all,” he says. “Mike’s reputation with me is based on my long experience with him. Every time he says he’s going to do something, he’s delivered. So, I’m not concerned about it.”

Collaborative process

The project comes on the heels of legislative action in the spring to give Outdoor School experience to all Oregon public schoolchildren. Senate Bill 439 directs the Oregon State University Extension Service to develop standards and curriculum for outdoor educators.

As part of the nationwide effort called No Child Left Inside, Rosen sees an opportunity to weave together his passions for education and the environment.

“Now it’s about secession planning,” he says. “What do I need to pass on to the next generation?”

NW Ecoliteracy Collaborative would work with communities in charrette-style workshops — those that invite all stakeholders to participate, in this case: educators, parents, and others — to develop place-based projects specific to their desires for their children’s education.

“This is Portland. This is the process we use for planning,” Rosen says. (The PPS board member pledges not to pursue this work in the district while he is on the board, but rather in other Portland-area and statewide schools.)

An example from Tursi’s master’s work was a school in a Philadelphia food desert that he worked with to teach children aquaculture home food growing techniques.

Tursi says that the 55 eighth-graders lit up under the experiential curriculum.

“We found that the ones who were the troublemakers in the class were the most engaged,” he says.

Tursi says his work is focused on reaching a “quadruple bottom line” of cultural, environmental, economic and experiential educational objectives. This would be accomplished, he says, through a four-part process: discussion, inquiry, the project, and reflection on the outcome of the project.

The collaborative now hopes to find $10,000 to $15,000 in stopgap funding until the grant cycles start for the 2016-17 school year. Rosen and Tursi are aiming for grants from places such as the Grey Family Foundation, the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District and Metro regional government.

“I feel like in a short period of time, we’ve made a lot of progress,” Rosen says.

By Shasta Kearns Moore
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