Eight Northampton Public Schools programs have received a total $86,411 in grant funding from the Northampton Education Foundation’s 16th annual Endowment Awards, the largest disbursal awarded to the district’s schools in a single cycle.
Recipient programs range from learning initiatives such as the Hitchcock Center’s Take it Outside! curriculum, which was piloted at Northampton schools last year, to nascent blueprints for experiential learning and novelty course offerings at the high school.
Hitchcock Center education director Colleen Kelley recalled how the pandemic provided a good reason for schools to embrace the center’s decades-long mission to transplant traditionally indoor learning outdoors.
“We’ve taught outside for 60 years, so developing a curriculum that responded to COVID and shared our expertise with Northampton teachers in a way that helped them adapt to teaching outdoors was very natural,” Kelley said.
Take it Outside! provides an outdoor framework for teaching science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), to elementary school students. Each grade level is assigned an animal and meets three times a year to learn more about their designated critter.
Funding from the education foundation will support learning aids, including backpacks for each child filled with puppets, books and other materials, and professional development for teachers who will take over the program next spring.
Hitchcock has received funding from NEF before, including a $36,640 grant last year that set in motion its current outdoor learning project. Take it Outside! was awarded $20,000 this award cycle to sustain its work in Northampton elementary schools through 2023.
The foundation, Kelley said, has been a good partner in fortifying sustainability education in Northampton schools.
Kelley and Hitchcock Center environmental educator Katie Koerten have together presented versions of the curriculum at education conferences, including the 2021 Massachusetts Environmental Education Society Conference, in hopes of bringing outdoor education to school districts across the commonwealth.
For older students, All Out Adventures, which promotes and enables accessibility in outdoor activities, plans on using its grant funding to bring adaptive cycling to the middle and high schools.
At JFK Middle School and Northampton High School, said Katherine Foster, executive director of All Out Adventures, kids with disabilities can miss out on a formative childhood pastime: riding a bike with friends.
“Culturally, what’s remarkable about growing up in Northampton is that kids in Northampton still ride bikes — it’s how they get to school and visit their friends — it gives them independence — but kids with disabilities get left out of that really important piece of our culture,” Foster said.
Her organization runs 180 adaptive recreation programs at state parks each year, programs that are open to community members with disabilities of all ages and their able-bodied companions.
Cycling, canoeing and paddleboarding in the summer, as well as hiking and snowshoeing in the winter, are designed to be as inclusive as possible, and the positive response from the community — Foster mentioned that All Out Adventures’s waiting list is perpetually oversubscribed — encouraged the organization to collaborate with physical education teachers to target their accessibility efforts at children with disabilities.
“It’s important that we run our program in highly visible places, like parks and schools, to change the perception of what’s possible for people with disabilities,” Foster said. “We’re always working to help people understand that people with all abilities can participate in recreation.”
Implementing the program doesn’t come without challenges. The biggest hurdle, said Foster, is capacity. School groups tend to be large, and All Out Adventures’ staple cycling program in Hadley is tailored to groups of four or five people.
The group’s NEF grant, just over $5,000, enables it to pay its part-time program leaders and bike mechanics to work with teachers throughout the year to include as many students as are interested in participating in adaptive cycling, which incorporates trikes and wheelchair tandems.
“One-off programs don’t really work for a lot of people with disabilities — they require regular participation. Regular visitation is designed to support the student and their growing independence, so when we show back up with the same bike they’re going to be so much more successful because they’re familiar with the equipment,” Foster said.