The Gunston School’s Chesapeake Watershed Semester

By Manning Lee

The Gunston Chesapeake Watershed program brings students, like Grace Holmes, to the school’s waterfront on a sunny afternoon in late winter.

Photo by Mike Morgan

Living on the Eastern Shore, one doesn’t expect to find a place like The Gunston School. Founded in 1911 as a girls’ boarding school, the private Centreville high school has fought vigorously to recreate itself throughout its 109-year history. From a small independent high school widely known for its college preparatory curriculum, the school now enjoys a reputation as one of the most innovative high schools in the country for environmental teaching and learning.

The Gunston School, nationally recognized for its 24-year-old Chesapeake Bay Studies Program, finishes each school year by requiring the entire student body to participate in either several day trips or overnight trips to places around the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This program is lauded for giving students a greater understanding of the Bay’s delicate ecosystem.

Camy Kelly outlines the watershed boundary, August 2018. Courtesy photo Emily Beck, The Gunston School

The Plan

With this program in mind, Gunston launched its new Environmental Strategic Plan in 2015. Its goal was to become a regional and national leader in environmental teaching and learning. Out of this ambitious directive, the concept of Chesapeake Watershed Semester (CWS) arose.

“Inspired by the semester abroad study model, we designed an educational deep dive into the science and policy that underly the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay,” said Emily Beck, director of CWS.

“In January 2016, Gunston’s Board of Trustee’s approved the program. In the summer of 2017, a team of Gunston educators wrote the curriculum and, in the fall of 2018, we launched our program. Our goal by 2025, is to be a fully residential semester school with our own campus that can house 36-40 students somewhere on the Eastern Shore, close to Gunston, but really maintaining its own identity.”

The Program

The Chesapeake Watershed Semester is a fully accredited program of The Gunston School. Students wishing to attend CWS from local high schools will find that each class works toward state core curriculum requirements. Both the environmental science and the government classes enable students to return to their regular AP classes and sit for the AP exams in May. The core academic program also includes literature and leadership classes. CWS also blocks out time for various independent online math classes and world languages.

What makes this program work is the diversity of student learners who thrive within the structure.

“It is interesting to see the different types of students interested in our program,” said Beck.

“We’ve seen some of our academic highflyers who want to challenge themselves with the collegiate style of teaching as well as the highly experiential learners who have also been drawn to the Watershed Semester’s hands-on approach.”

Kayla Flood paddling on the Rivanna River, Charlottesville, VA, August 2019. Courtesy photo Emily Beck, The Gunston School

The Expeditions

The signature piece of the CWS program is the five extensive learning expeditions. During the course of the semester, students take multiple three-day and two-night expeditions:

Expedition one

Orientation and Headwaters of the Shenandoah in Charlottesville, Virginia is the first trip of the semester. Students involve themselves in icebreakers, getting to know one another, camping, hiking, and kayaking.

Expedition two

On the Public Policy and Urban Environments trip to Washington D.C., the students visit Capitol Hill. “We had to use everything we’d learned in class in the previous two weeks before the trip. We visited the office of Maryland Congressman Andy Harris and met with his staff, as well as the staff members for Senator Ben Cardin which was pretty cool,” said Olivia Hershey, ’21.

Expedition three

The goal of the third expedition is to gain a greater appreciation for Chesapeake Bay ecosystems by learning how scientists collect data in the field and in the lab at Virginia Institute of Marine Science, (VIMS). VIMS is one of the largest marine research and education centers in the United States and is located in Wachapreague, Virginia.

“VIMS had a flow-through lab where water runs directly from the ocean through the lab and back out into the ocean. As it flowed through the lab, we were able to examine critters gathered from the salt flats. We looked at and identified each species then put them back into the water when we were done with them,” said Henry Shifrin, ’21.

“One day, we timed how fast an oyster, clam, and a muscle filtered the water. It was so cool,” said, Kayla Flood, ’21.

Reagan Gessford (front) and Phebe Wood (rear) examine benthic tidal organisms while working with VIMS in Wachapreague, VA. October 7, 2019. Courtesy photo Emily Beck, The Gunston School.

Expedition four

The goal of the fourth expedition is to study the energy and land use in Centralia, Pennsylvania and included a visit to the Conowingo Dam. Centralia is a borough in Columbia County, Pennsylvania. Its population has dwindled from more than 1,000 residents in 1980 to only five in 2017 — a result of the coal-seam fire burning beneath the borough since 1962. It is expected to burn for another 250 years.

On the same expedition, students learned how the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River traps much of the sediment and nutrient pollution carried by the river and prevents it from reaching the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay. Now, the area behind the dam has filled in more quickly than scientists had anticipated. The students toured the Dam and witnessed the debris for themselves. Although the government intentionally funded a debris clean-up project, the result wasn’t what they thought it should be considering the resources allocated.

“That was really interesting because we got there right after the government had agreed to spend millions and millions of dollars to clean up, but from what we saw there’s one guy with a tractor picking up trash,” said Hershey.

While the realization was shocking, it gave the students a spectacular opportunity to ask deeper questions, and to probe the issue in a more meaningful way. There could have been any number of reasons why the students witnessed anemic efforts, but the policy lesson they learned is invaluable: Problem funded does not mean problem solved.

Students observe Conowingo Dam spillways in use, November 1, 2019. Courtesy photo Emily Beck, The Gunston School.

Expedition five

The goal of the fifth expedition is to explore climate change and coastal resiliency on Smith Island, Maryland and Norfolk, Virginia.

“This trip was so good because we took our leadership and really applied everything we’d learned all semester. We designed every aspect of this trip ourselves including the supply list, as well as the itinerary,” said Sydney Nittle, ’21.

Phoebe Wood, ’21 described, “On Smith Island, you’re physically seeing that the island is disappearing and that the water level is rising. We talked with the residents there and did a lot of interviews. This is a tight-knit community who looks at the problem in an old-fashioned way. Then we went to Norfolk to the Office of Resiliency and we were thrust back into the 21st century and witnessed people looking at modern solutions based on resiliency and how a city can come together to work through its problem.”

CWS2 Students on Smith Island, MD during high tide, November 18, 2019.

L to R: Reagan Gessford, Kayla Flood, Cedar Foster, Sydney Nittle, James Fordi, Henry Shifrin, Carter Janney, Jackson Talbott, and Aidan Meyers. Courtesy photo Emily Beck, The Gunston School

Smith Island, MD during high tide, November 18, 2019. Courtesy photo Emily Beck, The Gunston School

The Impact

The Chesapeake Watershed Semester has had a positive impact on the Gunston community as a whole, sparking interest and attracting prospective students at their open houses.

“Upon returning to the general population of the school after their Watershed semester, teachers have noticed a marked rise in the maturity level of the CWS students. They have more leadership skills during class discussions and they seemed to have found their voice. The students have really accelerated their own growth through the program,” said Beck.

JRR Tolkien once said, “It’s the job that’s never started that takes the longest to finish.” In terms of educating people and changing the way we care for the Chesapeake Watershed, we can’t finish what we don’t start. While Chesapeake Watershed Semester isn’t designed to save the Bay, it ambitiously sets into motion the job of placing the Chesapeake Bay’s care into its students’ hands, showing them that it’s their Bay to save.

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