Back to School, Outdoors: National Wildlife Federation Afterschool Program Will Help Detroit Students Connect with Nature During Upcoming School Year

Detroit, Mich. — As students and educators across the nation prepare for the fall in an uncertain environment, the Detroit Leadership and Environmental Education Program (D-LEEP) is helping Detroit students take full advantage of one of the few learning environments that certainly won’t be closed anytime soon: the great outdoors.
Working in partnership to fill a need identified by the Detroit Public Schools Community District’s Department of Science, the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center rolled out this innovative afterschool outdoor program in the fall of 2019 to add an important element to the programming available for Detroit students. At the time, the long list of concerns facing urban school districts did not include a global pandemic. In light of COVID-19, outdoor educational opportunities are more important than ever. 
“We know that outdoor activities, with proper safety protocols, are low risk and promote physical and emotional well-being,” said Mike Shriberg, the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Executive Director. “We also know that meaningful connections with nature are important for youth living in cities. While students, parents and teachers contend with unprecedented challenges this year, D-LEEP will be a powerful part of their educational journey.”
D-LEEP engages high school students and families through workshops and discussions, field trips and student-led sustainability projects. In its first year, NWF worked with three of the city’s high schools: University Prep Academy, Marygrove and Western. 
Learning in the great outdoors was eye-opening for program participants. “I’ve always been afraid to go in forests. But now I love and my grandmother go hiking together on weekends,” said Tiyonna, a senior at University Prep.
D-LEEP will add more Detroit high schools this year, expanding capacity from 30 to 60 students. The program has several goals:

  • Cultivate the next generation of environmental leaders through an experiential afterschool program
  • Expose young people in Detroit to conservation career paths
  • Explore racial and environmental justice
  • Help young people understand how they can make a difference in their communities and beyond.

In addition to the students enrolled in D-LEEP in its exciting first year, the program reached into the community through a variety of organized activities:

  • Staff led 42 hikes and nature excursions to parks across Michigan.
  • 650 people participated in more than 40 workshops on subjects like fermentation, ecojustice and activism, beekeeping, edible mushroom foraging and Detroit’s ecological history. 
  • The team organized large-scale events that reached a combined 7,000+ community members.

Detroit’s intersecting health, class and environmental challenges have become abundantly clear: the city has the region’s highest COVID mortality rate. D-LEEP is cultivating the next generation of environmental leaders capable of confronting those challenges through outdoor experiences and a curriculum grounded in systemic analysis of the crises threatening ecosystems and wildlife.
“It’s been inspiring to watch these young people flourish as they gain a better understanding of themselves and how they fit into their natural environment and their community,” said D-LEEP coordinator Antonio Cosme, an experienced organizer and educator with deep ties to the Detroit community, who joined the NWF team to coordinate D-LEEP and connect the program with local needs and priorities. “Before COVID, there was already a growing movement among urban residents to connect with the outdoors. That relationship is where conservation starts, and Detroit students deserve that connection.”
As NWF prepares for the program’s second year, D-LEEP represents a promising example of how schools can engage students safely in the great outdoors as they wrestle with the educational challenges presented by COVID-19.
Program staff had to shift gears in March of 2020, when public school buildings closed due to the pandemic, forcing Cosme and team to alter the last three months of D-LEEP activities. The team stayed connected with students and families throughout the spring and summer, helping them find jobs and access other essential resources to weather the pandemic and its economic impact. 
COVID concerns are reflected in NWF’s plans for D-LEEP’s second year. More activities will take place outdoors, and classroom workshops will be offered online rather than in person. Masks and social distancing will be required for all outdoor activities. The team will build on successful ridesharing efforts to ensure that participants can travel safely to program activities and event.
NWF’s vision from the start was to create a model that could be replicated in other cities, while remaining nimble enough to respond to local needs and conditions. In light of the pandemic, that’s more relevant than ever. Shriberg encourages other communities to give this approach a try. 
“Our message is simple: Provide students as many outdoor learning experiences as possible,” Shriberg said. “Nature offers virtually unlimited opportunities to enrich and build on the great work educators are already doing.”


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