A new partnership between the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) and Trust for Public Land (TPL) aims to make outdoor spaces at several Tribal Community schools more culturally relevant. 

The partnership, known as the Tribal Community Schoolyards Pilot Program, will work with nine Tribal Schools to enhance nature-based spaces to support environmental justice and outdoor learning. 

“At the Department of the Interior, we have a solemn duty to honor and strengthen the federal government’s nation-to-nation relationships with tribes,” said Secretary Deb Haaland in a press statement. 

Pilot schools were selected through a data-informed, community-engaged planning process to prioritize the most impactful locations to advance health, education, and environmental justice outcomes, Tony Dearman, director of the Bureau of Indian Education, told the Daily Yonder. 

“The Bureau of Indian Education is very supportive of the partnership with the Trust for Public Lands,” Dearman said. “The development of Tribal Community Schoolyards supports BIE’s mission to provide a culturally relevant, high-quality education. This initiative provides opportunities for nature-based learning that promotes health, community, and the celebration of cultural identity.”

Dearman said the schools and playgrounds provide a safe space for children to play and by improving the areas and providing culturally relevant, nature-based outdoor learning areas, officials envision families, and their communities will have inviting spaces to gather. 

“Trust for Public Land has been fortunate to work with tribal and Indigenous communities over the decades and we have learned the sacred power of being rooted in culture, practice, tradition, and spirit with the land,” said Diane Regas, president, and CEO of Trust for Public Land, in a statement. “We are honored for the opportunity to extend these learnings to our schoolyards work and further our commitment to tribal and Indigenous nations through this pilot program.”  

The school yards will be designed by the community and students, said Danielle Denk, TPL’s Community Schoolyards initiative director.

The areas will be “the best reflection of the space that they need for learning for recreation, for health, for socialization,” she told the Daily Yonder. “So that will take many forms. And we do see that there will likely be elements that have to do with play –  playgrounds and things of that nature. There’ll be opportunities to do recreation, and which will fit the way that the community recreates, which is different everywhere.”

She added there will be enhanced gardens and vegetated spaces that bring in the additional tree canopy to make the space more shaded in order to make the space more climate-forward thinking.

“We do see these being really wonderful green oases for learning and for playing and for the community to come together,” Denk said. “And so, there’s not going to be a one-size fits all approach at all. And with the cultural specificity, anytime you work outdoors in the public realm, there’s a real opportunity to make it unique to make it speak to the kind of the essence of that community.”

Denk said they will work with a timeline that works for each community, but anticipates three to five years, though it could be completed quicker or slower than that. 

TPL works in both rural and urban communities, and Denke said that in urban communities, there’s often not as much nature and the area engages the nearby community. Rural school yards, meanwhile, engage the wider community and tend to have more nature around them. 

“The schoolyards in rural places become that civic destination, a place to come together and celebrate, and really have the kinds of facilities that advance healthy play, and group recreation,” she said. “We see all kinds of celebrations happen in rural communities in our school yards, where we wouldn’t see those happening, necessarily, in an urban schoolyard, because there’s a lot more facilities to support the needs.” 

Christie Abeyta, superintendent at Santa Fe Indian School, called the agreement and selection as a pilot school “a true blessing.”

“We have been working really hard over the last three to four years on developing our campus,” she told the Daily Yonder. “But one of the things that Covid brought to the forefront of our educational program was a need for open-air spaces.”

She said school officials and students have been working with the University of New Mexico to identify what should be included in outdoor and open spaces. 

“I think having our students drive some of the conversation and being able to provide input is going to be helpful,” she said. 

By taking learning outside, she said, students will be able “to engage in the environment to really learn in that place that students can associate directionally like traditional people, and that can associate themselves with that traditional type of knowledge and cultural understanding.”

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