County Office of Education Innovation Hub Fellowship Graduates Its First Cohort

Congratulations to the first graduating cohort of CAELI’s County Office of Education (COE) Innovation Hub Fellowship! Sixteen fellows representing twelve COEs recently completed their capstone presentations outlining plans for environmental literacy and sustainability initiatives in their regions. This was the culmination of an in-depth capacity-building experience that kicked off with an in-person retreat in August of 2022 at Durham Ferry, which included monthly virtual workshops from September through December that focused on foundational knowledge and strategies for whole systems change regarding campus, curriculum, community, and culture. The fellowship also included concentrated time for networking with peers across the state and support from coaches to develop strategic action plans that will help launch or sustain this work in the next two years.

The program was led by Andra Yeghoian, CAELI project director, and Amity Sandage, Santa Cruz County Office of Education environmental literacy coordinator, based on their work as the state’s first environmental literacy coordinators to work at the county level (San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, respectively). Amity, determined to ensure that all fifty-eight counties have such a role, reflected, “I felt that the combination of expertise, innovation, and heart at the core of the COE Environmental Literacy Fellowship empowered participants. Each fellow is now planting seeds for work that has the potential to transform school systems by centering sustainability and student engagement. The most inspiring experience for me was watching how our fellows, by committing to examine the realities of our current environmental crisis, came out on the other side more hopeful than ever and committed to action.”

COE Fellows at Durham Ferry in August of 2022.

At the capstone event, many fellows shared a sense of enthusiasm and synergy around this work. Sunny Dawn, who participated with Maia Steward and Melea Meyer of Mendocino County, said, “Everybody here was very inspiring. The fellowship just came at a time that helped me rethink our leadership role in the county office.” Olivia Santillan of Santa Clara County Office of Education said, “Jenn [Mutch, also in the fellowship] and I have been partnering for three or four years to show the connections between social science and science. It’s serendipitous that the superintendent had come to Jenn wanting to do this and the fellowship existing, so it seemed like this magic combination came together. Now our superintendent wants us to eventually share this out with districts.”

Mara Wold, who joined with her colleague Lety Gomez-Gong from Expanded Learning in Region 5, serving Monterey, San Benito, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz counties, agreed. She said, “I really feel like this is such an opportunity for us to model an integrated approach to all subjects, and I think if we do that well we can really change education in many positive ways to demonstrate how all of these subjects can come together and be fully integrated with environmental literacy and sustainability.”

For Gloria Halley of Butte County and many others, “This work has just started to come together with the urgency of youth voices included. With all the youth leadership initiatives that I’ve done, once they take ownership of what the change will look like, adults will listen.” Her colleague Jeff Salberg appreciated that, through the fellowship, they were encouraged to “build environmental literacy into the existing networks that are already there and not duplicate efforts.”

COE Fellows Kristine Stepping (San Joaquin COE), Mariano Aranda (San Bernardino COE), and Jose Marquez (Stanislaus COE) complete a whole systems thinking activity.

While the fellowship idea began to disseminate an innovative toolkit for COE staff that CAELI’s COE Innovation Hub developed, it grew to become a cohort of emerging leaders who could support each other as early adopters of these educational reforms and help take the idea to scale. Only somewhat jokingly, Wold said, “I still feel like I have to block off about five days to go through everything again, but I know that the pieces are there and for me. Now it’s about making sure that I reach out to these new friends from the cohort to fuel me to continue the work.” Kayle Anisko of Calaveras County said the capstone event “highlights the importance of this cross-sector and cross-job network and collaboration.”

Wold said, “Now is the time to collaborate and commit dedicated resources to environmental literacy and sustainability efforts. With a collective vision and shared educational and community resources – human and financial – we will make a significant difference. Our future depends on it, as does that of every generation to come.”

Fellow Maia Steward reflected on “CAELI and how this initiative has grown and developed over the years. It’s an interesting learning experience to see how a small team can really expand its influence into this very large statewide network. I think that’s a pretty incredible accomplishment and exciting.”

One thing was clear from the capstone event – it was not an end. With calls for more regular meetings together and a year two program in the works due to popular demand, the first cohort of COE fellows will continue to become the statewide network of support that they seek – primarily for one another and then for an ever-growing movement of educators dedicated to graduating environmentally literate, nature-connected, and climate-ready students across California.