If you visit Crete Public Schools’ campus, you’ll notice a sense of life. Monarchs flitter through gardens. Heirloom vegetables thrive in the greenhouse. Cardinals return to roost in trees.
This revitalization is no accident; it is the result of Cardinal Community Learning Centers’ (CCLC) outdoor education program. This lively scene is also proof that working together, as a community, we can turn old spaces into vibrant new ones while creating opportunity and abundance.
But first some background. Beyond School Bells (BSB) is Nebraska Children and Families Foundation’s dedicated network of afterschool professionals. For the past two decades, Beyond School Bells and an assortment of state and local partners have been working to develop high quality, locally sustainable afterschool and summer programs across Nebraska.
When Jeff Cole, BSB’ Network Lead, contacted Joel Bramhall, the Director of CCLC during the pandemic, there was a meeting of the minds. Realizing a shared passion for outdoor and environmental education, and the important role that this type of educational experience should have during a viral pandemic, Jeff, the BSB team, and Joel envisioned a collaboration that would allow Crete to create an outdoor education program that can be a model for other afterschool programs across Nebraska.
Out of this partnership, Crete’s outdoor education program was reborn. In addition to piloting new curriculum and club experiences, CCLC is using BSB funds to revitalize the campus Greenhouse, Prairie, and Arboretum, hence the program has earned the name GPA.
Through GPA, students have the opportunity to enhance their community’s beauty, celebrate a sense of place, and engage in sustainable living and environmental appreciation. All the while, through GPA, students will learn important STEM skills, gain college and career readiness experiences, and internship credits.
“These once desolate spaces are now beaming with life,” Joel said. “From students designing pollinator gardens as a means of attracting monarch butterflies, to heirloom vegetables growing in the aquaponics tank in the greenhouse, to cardinal birds returning to nest in trees that were planted decades ago by school alumni. It is a special place with an essence of community and self-reliance that are immeasurable, yet visible anywhere you look here,” he said.
Joel said that in addition to outdoor beautification, the GPA participants have learned important new skills. “Not only do students learn how to grow their own food, care for the land, take pride in their efforts and their school, but also students from our High School AgEd program to kindergarteners are partaking in hands-on nature lessons led by industry experts,” said Joel.
Joel said, “The main takeaway from the GPA project is the value students generate for their community. Not only have K-12 students learned an extraordinary amount about horticulture and the importance of food and flowers, but high school students who serve as paid interns in what we call our Green-Collar Internship Program have gained job skills and developed deep passions for horticulture, which will shape their future careers and the health of their families.”
Joel said that he continues to witness and be a part of the GPA project’s benefits.
“For the GPA project, the greenhouse, prairie, and arboretum learning sites are really beginning to show the benefits of this restoration and modernization process. I am sure the spring will bring these even more to light,” he said.
Joel said that along with the spring, he can already see the students’ revitalization efforts taking root.
So far, the 2020-2021 school year has welcomed almost 850 students to the GPA program, with 418 of them enrolled as regular attendees. In addition to getting their grow on, Joel said that CCLC provides nutritious snacks and dinners for students enrolled in the afterschool program.
For all the good that the GPA project has done, Joel said that care, supervision, and safety are paramount.
Joel said, “It is imperative to remember that CCLC offers an enrichment-oriented learning atmosphere where students are supervised, safe, and fed. Which means they are not alone, on the streets, or hungry.”
But the GPA project isn’t just a seasonal endeavor. Thanks to the efforts of its hardworking contributors, the outdoor structures will continue to give back to our community. Joel said, moreover, that the GPA program’s impact will influence generations to come.
“I believe the project’s lasting legacy will be that the efforts today will serve nature and the locals quite well for many years to come,” he said.
But when it comes to projects like GPA, Joel, and his team aren’t green. Before becoming Director of CCLC, Joel served as the Director of Education for Myriad Botanical Gardens in downtown Oklahoma City, overseeing a stunning 15-acre park. In this role, Joel undertook a project that would eventually pave the way for GPA. Joel and his team were assigned a large task: The John Rex Charter Elementary School intended to expand into the Myriad Gardens’ McGee Education Center.
From there, Joel and his team were challenged to align horticulture with the school’s learning outcomes. They created “Garden Groundbreakers,” an immersive learning experience for urban students to explore and form a coalition with the natural world.
Joel said of his previous role, “The experiential curriculum encouraged inner-city students to expand their curiosity about the natural surroundings, fostered excitement about healthy living, and prepared the next generation to become resilient environmental stewards.”
Joel said that the results were measurable and remarkable.
“Upon completion of the inaugural year, learners demonstrated a 30.72 percentage point improvement from pre to post assessment within the program’s frameworks. Also, the school’s 2018-2019 performance scores in Science exceeded the state average by 34.9 points,” said Joel.
In 2020, The United States Department of Education recognized the John Rex Charter Elementary School as a National Blue Ribbon School. When Joel came home to Nebraska, he brought this robust experience creating high-quality horticultural learning experiences with him. Unsurprisingly, shortly after Joel joined the team at CCLC and connected with BSB, GPA was created.
“So, when I arrived back to my home state of Nebraska in April 2020, I was ready to continue my pursuit of growing self-reliant communities through gardening and the outdoors,” said Joel.
Joel said that other big plans for GPA include a cutting-edge digital map that will locate every tree in the arboretum and a summer program that will engage edible gardening, citizenship, and entrepreneurship.
According to Joel, the best is yet to come – and BSB is excited about the opportunity to continue investing in CCLC. Joel’s plans for an innovative summer gardening program, which in addition to financial support, will receive one of BSB’s Think Make Create Labs™, especially outfitted to support environmental and outdoor education.
“Our CCLC Summer program is focused around edible gardening, citizenship and entrepreneurship,” he said. “It’s going to be so wonderful for the students!”