The Transylvania Times -

Muddy Sneakers To Celebrate 10 Years On May 11 At Lumberyard

 

May 10, 2018

Muddy Sneakers students spend a good bit of time outdoors, of course. They take day trips to study the flora and the fauna, to learn from field instructors about life cycles and weather patterns and how humans directly impact the environment.

In the summer of 2007, two local camp owners, Chuck McGrady (Falling Creek) and Sandy Schenck (Green River Preserve), along with Aleen Steinberg, a conservationist and advocate behind the protection of DuPont State Recreational Forest, gathered on the front porch of Schenck's mountain cabin at Green River Preserve. Fueled by the ideas presented in Richard Louv's book "Last Child in the Woods," the three discussed ideas for how to better connect local children with the conserved natural areas surrounding their communities. The desire was to work with local public-school students in Western North Carolina, most of which are not able to attend the many regional summer camps, in hopes of offering them similar experiential learning opportunities.

After that initial meeting, a board of directors was established and Friends of DuPont Forest agreed to serve as fiscal agent during the start-up phase. Soon after, John Huie joined the effort as the original executive director, bringing leadership and helping to guide the organization's vision. Huie, as former executive director of N.C. Outward Bound, understood the world of experiential education and had worked closely with Schenck from the earliest conceptualization of the program. One of Huie's sons suggested the name 'Muddy Sneakers,' as a reference to the type of experiences children long for and what would result if given the opportunity to learn by doing. The name was a perfect fit: equal parts original, descriptive, nostalgic, and energizing.

Lauren Agrella-Sevilla, Muddy Sneakers' first Program Director, worked under Huie in designing a curriculum that was well aligned with the N.C. Science Standards for grades 5 and 8. Agrella-Sevilla created lessons with hands-on activities and incorporated best practices in environmental education, while always remaining focused on serving the school's needs. She then hired passionate, knowledgeable instructors who could make learning fun and meaningful while also showcasing the value in incorporating the outdoor classroom. Using a small group model, Muddy Sneakers set out to provide students with full-day, repeat experiences spread across the school year.

Transylvania County's Brevard Elementary and Pisgah Forest Elementary agreed to participate in the organization's pilot semester in the spring of 2008. At the conclusion of the semester, a fifth-grade student from Pisgah Forest was asked which of the Muddy Sneakers expeditions was his favorite, to which he responded, "The first one, because it was the first time I had ever been on a hike." These two adventurous schools would return for a full year of programming in 2008-2009 and, largely due to word of mouth support, Muddy Sneakers would soon find itself expanding across the school district and into neighboring counties across the state's Western region.

After the first year of programming, Agrella-Sevilla stepped into the role of executive director and the decision was made to focus solely on fifth grade. This key decision was based around the importance of that developmental stage and the organization's immediate success in serving children that were advanced in their thinking and still filled with wonder and interest for the natural world. Fifth-grade is also a test year for science in N.C. and schools were interested in seeking out ways to improve student aptitude. In only a couple of years, Muddy Sneakers was operating in five school districts across four Western North Carolina counties (Transylvania, Henderson, Buncombe and McDowell).

In 2011, program success and growing recognition culminated in Muddy Sneakers being awarded the N.C. Governor's Award for Outstanding Conservation Organization of the Year, as presented by the NC Wildlife Federation. Later that year, Muddy Sneakers was the featured environmental education organization in an episode of UNC-TV's Exploring North Carolina titled 'Nature's Classroom.'

In January 2012, Ryan Olson stepped into the role of Executive Director. Olson, formerly with The Nature Conservancy in South Carolina, brought a strong business sense, a connection to the conservation community and a contagious enthusiasm for Muddy Sneakers. With an eye towards further refining and progressing the excellent Muddy Sneakers model, Olson's goals included building financial relationships that would ensure long-term organizational sustainability and developing a growth model that would allow the organization to consider opportunities for further expansion and even replication. The organization had survived the challenges of the economic downturn and now had its sights set on developing into a model program for environmental education in public schools.

Between 2012 and 2015, Muddy Sneakers grew from serving 13 to 21 schools across seven WNC districts with the addition of schools in Polk and Rutherford Counties. The organization also launched a three year pilot program in upstate South Carolina that served five schools across Greenville and Spartanburg counties. With this growth came the addition of more administrative and field staff and a move out of the original office space at the Transylvania Boys & Girls Club to the current location in downtown Brevard.

The single most critical growth effort would come during the 2015-16 season. Muddy Sneakers staff, working closely with legislative supporters, including founder and now N.C. Rep. Chuck McGrady, began to pursue state-level support in order to test program portability beyond the WNC region. An important visit came in November of 2015 when June Atkinson, then superintendent of schools, spent a morning in the field with Muddy Sneakers students and instructors at the program's original expedition site at DuPont State Recreational Forest. Her experience that day with the students from Sugarloaf Elementary and her sincere belief in the value of environmental and experiential education, helped pave the way in the organization's efforts to eventually secure $500,000 from the NC General Assembly in July 2016. The funding was for doubling program impact from 1,300 to 2,600 NC students and providing the necessary resources to open a Muddy Sneakers Field Office in the Piedmont region.

In December 2016, Muddy Sneakers opened this second field office in Salisbury, and in late January 2017, the inaugural group of Piedmont students went on their first Muddy Sneakers learning expedition. This state-supported expansion brought experiential science education programming to 300 additional students in Western North Carolina and nearly 1,000 students in the Piedmont region from Rowan, Davidson, Randolph, Stanly and Montgomery counties. In total, Muddy Sneakers grew to serve nearly 2,700 students by the end of the 2016-2017 school year, with each child receiving multiple outdoor classroom experiences.

In 2017, Muddy Sneakers also launched a multi-year research partnership with NC State University that continues today. The diverse multi-disciplinary team of researchers from NCSU and Muddy Sneakers set out to measure the impact of this model of outdoor experiential education on fifth-grade students. It is to date the largest study conducted in environmental education with public school students. After surveying and interviewing for over one year, the results were overwhelmingly positive. Not only do grades and aptitude improve, but there is a clear added benefit to classroom behavior and success. The Muddy Sneakers effect is one that closes gaps that commonly occur in learning at this critical age for students, whether between male and female students or those who struggle with attention and behavioral issues. The continuing partnership means further investigation of this effect and creating a longitudinal study of the long-term benefits of Muddy Sneakers' model.

The 2017-18 school year brought additional growth and another year of support from the N.C. General Assembly. Muddy Sneakers introduced satellite programming, a new concept that uses its Field Offices as 'hubs' while engaging school partners further afield, where instructors spend the night in order to program multiple days at a time. These "spokes" resulted in the organization reaching underserved communities in farther reaches of the state such as Cherokee County to the west and Robeson County to the southeast. The results have been very positive and continued satellite growth is expected in the years to come.

Students and field instructors alike invite the public to join them in celebrating their 10th year in outdoor education this Friday evening at the Brevard Lumberyard.

The 2017-18 school year is also significant in that it marks the organization's 10th anniversary and a decade of providing inspired outdoor curriculum to the state's science students. With plans for continued regional growth, as well as additional field offices, Muddy Sneakers is primed to serve many more students in the years ahead while continuing to prioritize organizational sustainability.

The success achieved to date could not have been possible and cannot continue without a healthy balance of private support from the communities served, as it is essential in leveraging further state investment. That support is imperative. To find out more or to donate, visit Muddy Sneakers online at http://www.muddysneakers.org.

Muddy Sneakers will be hosting a 10th Anniversary Celebration at the Lumberyard in Brevard this Friday, May 11, at 6 p.m. Tickets are available online at http://www.muddysneakers.org and include live music by Jeff Sipe's Lotus Quintet, dinner from award-winning Blue Smoke BBQ (vegetarian options available), and dessert from Blue Ridge Bakery. Drinks will be available for purchase from Oskar Blues Brewery, Bold Rock Cider and Biltmore Wines.

 
 

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