Elise Sheffield stands in front of a chalkboard outside and points to a sign that says, “What is soil? How is soil made?”

Boxerwood Education Association

Chesapeake B-WET funded organization

We have become what we are today because of B-WET funding, resources, and colleagues: we can’t imagine our success without B-WET.

Boxerwood Education Association, Chesapeake B-WET funded organization

What is your name and current job?

Elise Sheffield, Education Director, Boxerwood Education Association, Lexington, Virginia.

How has the NOAA Bay Watershed Education and Training (B-WET) program helped you grow personally and/or professionally?

B-WET and Boxerwood have grown up together: we’re just two years apart in age. The funding enabled us and our school partners to literally get our feet wet for the first time. When I arrived at Boxerwood in 2005, our five-year old grassroots organization was in its very early stages of providing watershed education to several local public schools, with support from a series of one-year grants from B-WET. These early grants enabled us to purchase materials (much of it still in use today), attract schools with heavily subsidized programs, and support Boxerwood educator salaries. This essential start-up funding enabled us to crawl out of the primordial sea, as it were, and evolve over 22 years into a robust, well-operating organization. 

Our work is place-based in a rural, low-income headwaters community and our partnership with all three local public school divisions (10 schools) and all 17 area preschools is deep. These deep relationships sustained over time have led to ever greater partnership opportunities and pilots, in turn enabling Boxerwood to share its locally-rooted successes both regionally and nationally. B-WET hasn’t been our only supporter, but it has been the most involved, focused, and strategic. As a result, we have become what we are today because of B-WET funding, resources, and colleagues: we can’t imagine our success without B-WET.

Has B-WET and learning about the Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience (MWEE) framework enabled or helped you improve your programs? If so, how?

B-WET set the vision for Boxerwood since we were just getting started in developing programs for our new organization. The MWEE vision set the pedagogy, and we have evolved with the pedagogy. Boxerwood educators learned watershed science and pedagogy through the MWEE model and associated professional development: we teach the way we teach because of NOAA. We have added other pedagogies over time, but we’re rooted in the B-WET world.

Has B-WET helped you implement and/or build capacity for environmental education in your participating schools or in your community? If so, how?

In early years, modest one-year grants from B-WET enabled us to secure instructional materials and provided program subsidies to schools.. As B-WET evolved, so did we. To stay competitive for awards we had to keep upping our game. First we made the transition from merely being a direct student provider to also providing MWEE teacher development. Later, when B-WET stepped forward with its systemic MWEE vision, we used this funding level to bring all 10 schools in our area into systemic implementation across multiple grades. The hardest (but necessary) step was weaning off annual B-WET support, which we did gradually over two 3-year grant cycles. By then schools understood and appreciated the value of the MWEE programs and each year invested more of their own funding as budgets allowed, thus feeling more ownership. At the same time, our success with B-WET and our partners also enabled us to attract other sources of revenue. These sources are not as singularly life-changing as B-WET’s awards, but collectively have been enough to sustain our programs annually since the conclusion of our last 3-year award about five years ago. Now we even have modest, local funding from the county government. None of this would have been possible without the sustained support of B-WET in the growth and start-up years. And all of it would not be as sweet without the community of support B-WET professionals have maintained with us and other grantees today.

What advice do you have for someone else interested in conducting high quality environmental education?

Adopt our model: it works. Befriend one or more school divisions and walk with them for the duration. Do not leave them. School administrators and teachers (with their various commitments and visions), come and go, but a community-based environmental organization with a mission focused on supporting high-quality education and partnership can be a steady “North Star.” Our under-resourced rural schools do not have time to get up-to-date on MWEEs (there aren’t even any science directors), forge environmental education networks, and pursue competitive funding. We wish they did but they don’t. That’s why the sustained partnership works. We each bring something to the table and need each other, but Boxerwood pushes the ideas forward and steers. Together, we go places!