Partnerships and Community Involvement Help Texas High School Win $10 Million in ‘XQ Super School’ Contest

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 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.

For more information on Furr High School and the XQ Project please visit  or


John Warner
Urban District Forester, Texas A&M Forest Service

Released September 15, 2016


Leaves of Change Issue 21: National Team Takes a Unique Approach to Urban Forest Technology and Science Delivery

loc-21-pictureToday, 54 percent of the world’s population is urban, and the United Nations projects that number will be close to 70 percent by 2050. The growing urban population will rely on their ecosystems for a wide range of environmental services and human health benefits that we are only recently beginning to understand. This has fed a growing desire to keep up with the rapidly developing science of urban ecosystems and the emergence of new data and technology for evaluating urban green space, understanding trends, and designing a healthier environment for urban residents.

The Forest Service’s National Urban Forest Technology and Science Delivery Team (NTSD) was formed in November 2013 with the goal of improving the agency’s ability to deliver state-of-the-knowledge information to city planners and natural resource practitioners, in the most rapid and accessible ways possible.

To view the full article click here.



Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children

barefootandbalToday’s kids have adopted sedentary lifestyles filled with television, video games, and computer screens. But more and more, studies show that children need “rough and tumble” outdoor play in order to develop their sensory, motor, and executive functions. Disturbingly, a lack of movement has been shown to lead to a number of health and cognitive difficulties, such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), emotion regulation and sensory processing issues, and aggressiveness at school recess break. So, how can you ensure your child is fully engaging their body, mind, and all of their senses?  Using the same philosophy that lies at the heart of her popular TimberNook program—that nature is the ultimate sensory experience, and that psychological and physical health improves for children when they spend time outside on a regular basis—author Angela Hanscom offers several strategies to help your child thrive, even if you live in an urban environment. With this book, you’ll discover little things you can do anytime, anywhere to help your kids achieve the movement they need to be happy and healthy in mind, body, and spirit.

For more information visit:


Window Views to Green Landscapes Help High Schoolers Recover from Attention Fatigue and Stress

In a recent study, students that were in classrooms with views to green space were better able to pay attention and recover from stressful events than students in classrooms that had views of buildings or other man-made structures, or no windows at all

Ninety-four high school students from five high schools participated in this study. Student participants were randomly assigned to  either a classroom with no windows, a classroom with windows that opened to a built space, and a classroom with windows that opened to a green space. Participants engaged in typical classroom activities followed by a break in the classroom to which they were assigned. The researchers studied stress levels with EKG readings, blood volume pulse, and body temperature.  Other tests measured the students’ attention fatigue and perceived stress levels.

Results demonstrate that classroom views to green landscapes cause significantly better performance on tests of attention and increase student’s recovery from stressful experiences.

To read the full article, click here.

Can Urban Forest Settings Positively Influence Children with Autism?

In late July, autism_greenspaceUSDA Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the four recipients of the 2016 USDA Forest Service’s National Urban and Community Forestry Challenge grants. One of the recipients, Georgia State University (GSU) and several partners, will investigate the impact of natural environments such as urban and community forests on symptom expression in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Brian Barger, research assistant professor at GSU, is principal investigator for the grant, with collaborators from other universities, nongovernmental agencies, and the Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS). Cassandra Johnson Gaither, project leader of the SRS Integrating Human and Natural Systems unit based in Athens, Georgia, and Annie Hermansen-Baez, SRS science delivery and Kids in the Wood coordinator in the same unit, will provide their expertise in assessment and science delivery.

“Research results showing the positive effects of managed natural environments such as urban parks and forests on human general and mental health have grown exponentially over the last decade,” said Barger. “Yet no studies to date have explored the effects of these environments on the expression of core and associated symptoms in children with autism spectrum disorders.”

To read the full article in SRS’s CompassLive, click here.

Living around Nature Could Help You Live Longer

loc picA new research study suggests living closer to nature is good for your health. A study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that people living in greener areas have a lower risk of mortality. This is likely due to the health benefits such as improved mental health, social engagement, and physical activity that are associated with living near green areas.

Researchers used satellite data to assess the amount of green vegetation surrounding each participant’s home and compared this data to participant health data between 2000 and 2008. They found that the people living in the greenest places ( areas where there is the most vegetation within 800 feet of their homes), regardless of individual’s income, weight, or smoking status, had 12% lower rates of mortality than people living in less green areas. This relationship was strongest when the deaths were due to respiratory disease, cancer, and kidney disease.

Places with more vegetation close by are thought to be less polluted and have cleaner air, helping improve the quality of health in individuals. Also these spaces encourage outdoor exercise and social engagement, further improving physical and mental health. More research is needed to understand the exact mechanisms by which exposure to nature can improve health.

To view the full article, click here

The Greening of Schools May Be the Real Cutting Edge of Education

greening of school spic

Outside Atlanta, after returning from a class hike through the woods, an excited six-year-old grabbed his head and said, “There’s so much nature and I only have two eyes and one brain and I think it’s going to explode!”

This child attends the Chattahootchee Hills Charter School, which is a nature-based school at which students spend about a third of their time learning outdoors. In countries such as Finland these types of outdoor schools are common and as a result Finnish schools scores in math, science, and reading have consistently been at or near the top of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Despite the widespread reporting about Finland’s success, the majority of America’s have gone in the opposite direction by reducing recess, lessening field trips, lengthening the  hours sitting at desks, using more computers, and administering more tests

Green schools are growing into a strong counter trend — as even some technologists question the underlying assumptions leading us to techno-overkill. There’s growing demand for green schools. The number of nature-based preschools and schools to are on the rise, as are school gardens and nature-based play spaces in elementary and even high schools.

Evidence supporting nature-based, place-based education or experiential learning (as this approach is variously called) has been building for decades. It is also important to note that a purely natural setting isn’t required. This learning method can be used in a forest or in an urban neighborhood, especially if it’s graced with a little nature.

To see the full article by Richard Louv posted on the Children and Nature Network website, click here.

To see the CBS This Morning news piece on the Chattahoochee Hillls Charter School, click here.


Paul Revell Memorial

prPaul Revell died on Thursday March 17th, 2016. Paul’s Memorial Service is being held on Saturday, March 26 at 11:00 a.m., at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church in Charlottesville, VA.

As Urban and Community Forestry Coordinator, Paul helped many organizations implement significant projects, including greenways, landscape designs, streetscapes, parks, and open spaces.  He was a past president of the Mid- Atlantic Chapter of International Society of Arboriculture and received that organization’s True Professional Award in 2015.  Paul also served for several years on the National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council, and helped with the initial funding of the Clinch River Valley Initiative.  He received numerous awards and recognition from organizations across Virginia, including the Keep Virginia Beautiful Award, the Southern Group of State Foresters Urban Forestry Award, the National Association of State Foresters Urban Forestry Award, the International Society of Arboriculture True Professional of Arboriculture Award, the VNRLI Gerald P. McCarthy Award for Leadership in Environmental Conflict Resolution, and the Clinch River Valley Initiative Partner of the Year Award.  Each award is a testament to Paul’s hard work, dedication, commitment, innovation, creativity, public service, and good humor in the face of daunting challenges.

Paul was a founding member and supporter of the Urban Forest Strike Team initiative that emphasizes the roles of professional arborists and urban foresters in disaster recovery.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Paul Revell Legacy Scholarship Fund at the Virginia Natural Resources Leadership Institute (VNRLI)

Contributions can also be made to Trees Virginia, 900 Natural Resources Drive, Charlottesville, VA  22903 or at

Source: B. White and obituary.

Leaves of Change Issue 20: Project Attempts to Stem the Tide of African-American Land Loss through Active Forest Management

IMG_3211The decline in rural African-American landholdings over the past century has been dramatic, dropping from a peak of about 15 million acres in 1910 to less than 2 million today. The causes are multiple: outmigration, voluntary sales, foreclosures, and lack of access to credit and capital, as well as outright exploitation, threats, and discrimination. Another major problem has been that much of the land has been owned as heirs’ property, that is, land that was passed down through generations without benefit of a written will. Under heirs’ property, multiple heirs of the original landowners jointly own the family land; however, without clear title, heirs’ property creates obstacles to obtaining professional forestry services, procuring loans, and participating in conservation incentive programs offered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

The problem can be traced back to Reconstruction, when African Americans first gained property rights. At that time, African Americans rarely created wills because they were denied access to, could not afford, or did not trust the legal system.

As a former procurement forester for International Paper and the current director of sustainable forestry for the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation (CHPP) in Charleston, South Carolina, Sam Cook has witnessed firsthand the steady disappearance of African-American landholdings in the increasingly valuable coastal low country surrounding Charleston. According to Cook, the problem with passing down property without a will is that over time, as the number of heirs reaches into the dozens or even hundreds, the risk of a forced sale increases as family members become targets for real estate developers looking to buy cheap property in coastal South Carolina. “Much of the land around Charleston was given to African-American families because it was too sandy to farm. But, later the developers found out that sand was valuable for tourism. They used this unstable form of heirs’ property ownership as a tool to force the sale of family land,” says Cook.

Typically a buyer purchases one family member’s share in the property. They essentially join the family and become another heir/owner of the property. The buyer is then able to initiate sale of the land with the ultimate aim of obtaining the entire property. In situations with many owners/heirs, it is unworkable to divide the land, so the court typically orders a forced sale and division of the proceeds. Legal options to counter these schemes are often limited for land-rich and cash-poor African-American families due to attorney fees, court fees, survey fees, and other fees. Predictably, family members have been unable to outbid cash-rich real estate developers, and the family loses the land.

The work by Cook and the CHPP in coastal South Carolina is part of a pilot project called the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program funded by the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, in partnership with the NRCS and the USDA Forest Service. Other pilot projects involve the Federation of Southern Cooperatives in western Alabama and the Roanoke Electrical Coop in northeastern North Carolina. The goal of the pilot projects is to stabilize African-American land ownership, increase forest health, and build economic assets across the southern Black Belt.

To view the full article, click here.


Health Benefits of Nature

benefits_of_natureSpending time in nature can benefit humans in more ways than one. Researchers are building a body of evidence that proves that nature can greatly improve our short and long term mental and physical health.

For example, children diagnosed with ADD/ADHD can increase their concentration with as little as a 20 minute walk in a natural setting.  Adults with depression can decrease their symptoms of depression with a short period of time in nature. These are just two of the many benefits nature can have for our health.

To see the hundreds of research studies, news articles, and case studies about the benefits of nature for children and adults, click here.