HOUSTON, Texas — The wait is over. The announcement has come. Furr High School is an XQ America Super School. And although this may be new news to most Texans – the recognition did not happen overnight.
The origins of this success are vast and varied, but for two lead educators, there is little doubt where their inspiration came from – their own high school experiences, the engagement of their teachers and the facilitation of the students getting involved with state, federal and non-governmental agencies.
David Salazar and Juan Antonio Elizondo are Career and Technical Education agriculture teachers at Furr High School – known as The Green Institute – within the Houston Independent School District. They are leaders in the Woodsy Owl Conservation Corps Green Ambassadors program and are largely responsible for proposing the concepts for which the school applied for the XQ grant.
They grew up learning that the mission of natural resource agencies is ultimately to help the people.
“Agencies afford people the opportunities and education of what natural resources mean,” said Salazar. “They avail us all of long-lasting experiences, opportunities for civic participation and a sense of place. With this knowledge and experience, we are able to engage with policy and help push it forward. This can greatly impact our public education system – especially in our urban communities.”
Houston is the most populous city in Texas and the fourth-most populous city in the United States. With a land area of nearly 600 square miles, Houston is recognized by governing.com as the country’s most sprawling city.
This makes natural spaces a premium and more-and-more a rarity.
W. Goodrich Jones State Forest is nicknamed Houston’s Backyard and is 1,700 acres on the outskirts of Houston proper. Managed by Texas A&M Forest Service, it is a working forest used for research, demonstration and education. The property and its visitation programs serve as a home-base of sorts for inner-city school field trips and various educational programs. It is among the pines and wildlife of this forest that a core group of HISD educators and students began unfolding their ideas for a different education and life for those in their schools and communities.
Salazar and Elizondo are just two of the leaders in this truly youth-led movement, using peer-to-peer learning and multi-agency collaboration. They have helped take what agencies deliver into their communities and have made it their own.
The Green Ambassador program is an integral component of Furr High School attaining the status of Super High School and receiving up to $10 million over the next five years to help transform the American high school experience.
The program was formed in the East End of Houston with the help of the American Forest Foundation Project Learning Tree GreenSchool Initiative and a grant from the USFS-National Urban and Community and Forestry Advisory Council.
The ambassadors are high school and college students, who go out to elementary and middle schools, local communities and parks to share information on how to take care of the environment, spreading conservation and environmental awareness messages. They incorporate bilingual education, use mentors to connect diverse audiences to nature and facilitate after-school programing in schools and community centers using conservation education curricula from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Forest Service and Texas A&M Forest Service — among others.
It is in part through these numerous partners and collaborators that the Houston Greenbelt is becoming a sustainable model that others may be able to replicate nationwide.
“The U.S. Forest Service is thrilled to have had a long-term collaboration with the community and with Furr High School — The Green Institute — that has led to the development of this phenomenal opportunity to serve as one of the nation’s 10 XQ Super Schools,“ Michiko Martin, director of conservation education for the U. S Forest Service said. “We will continue to support the inspiring work of our youth, educators, administrators and the community as we forge new pathways to education, natural resource careers and connecting all people to nature and conservation.”
Salazar and Elizondo said they tried to help the school and community figure out how urban and community forests could mitigate the heat island effect and flooding that are so prominent in Houston. They also recognized how trees could help contribute to food sovereignty.
“A lot of us saw each other as overweight, obese and with diabetes. We were truly seeing a trend – we were the trend!” said Elizondo. “We wondered why? Why are we like this? We started thinking about food and connected it with the concepts of gardens, food orchards and food forests.”
The Green Ambassadors have planted hundreds of fruit trees and other beneficial vegetation in their communities. They are embracing prevalent research that connects human health benefits with trees and nature to create natural spaces that are sustainable and self-regenerating.
The organic gardens are just one category on which the group concentrates. There are members of the group dedicated to permaculture, pollinators, health and physical fitness, wildlife, urban planning and development and environmental justice.
These current concepts and content areas serve as a starting point for Furr High School’s vision for the future. According to school administration, the vision encapsulates a place that offers: equitable education and assessments customized to the specific needs, hopes and dreams of the students — comparable to those available for more privileged populations; and a sustainable leadership tract for educators and students, incorporating partnerships with universities.
The energy and enthusiasm of the East End movement has been invigorated with the XQ: Super School Project grant. But Salazar knows that the real work has just begun.
“Change starts here. This is just the beginning,” he said. “As we help transform our little corner of the world, we will be able to serve as a model for comparable schools and help build the capacity of Texas and the nation.”
Furr High School is one of 10 schools nation-wide to receive the competitive XQ grant. Read the Education Week XQ: Super School Project announcement here.
Urban District Forester, Texas A&M Forest Service
Released September 15, 2016