At Oil City Elementary, Environmental Education Saves the Day

Oil City Elementary GreenhouseSeveral years ago, Oil City Elementary Magnet School, located in rural northwest Louisiana, faced declining enrollment and possible closure. About one-third of the teachers were transferred elsewhere. The teachers and administrators who remained decided to fight for their school, energized by community support. Their solution: working together to create a school with an environmental focus.


Enrollment grew by about one-third, to 385 kids. School Performance Scores dramatically improved, surpassing the state average. The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry named it one of the “top 10” most improved schools in the state. In 2006, Oil City won the National School Change Award from the American Association of School Administrators, Fordham University, and Pearson Education.

PLT as Catalyst

The school presented a proposal to the superintendent and school board to turn Oil City Elementary into a school that uses the environment to teach math, language arts, and other subjects. The school board agreed—with no extra funds, but at least with a promise to provide bus transportation for any kid in the district who wanted to attend and 20 extra instructional days.

The staff chose Project Learning Tree as the catalyst in turning this school around because of its track record of success in total education and student achievement. Each year the entire faculty receives ongoing PLT professional development. Under the leadership of Cindy Kilpatrick, the school’s science coordinator, teachers align PLT activities by topic and grade level across the curriculum–inside the classroom and out. Teachers taught every subject through an environmental lens, stressing hands-on, active learning.

Oil City is now also a certified PLT GreenSchool.

Suggestions from the Principal

Fortunately, a school does not have to be in the dire straits of an Oil City to gain from its experience. Principal Mike Irvin offered these suggestions:

  • Oil City Elementary Outdoor ClassroomTrain the teachers: All teachers receive training in PLT. They continue to keep up with environmental issues and how best to present these issues to their students.
  • Inspire the kids: Teachers in each grade level choose an environmental theme at the beginning of every year, for example, related to forests, wildlife habitat, or another concept. Hands-on learning, field trips, and other activities revolve around the theme. Kids clamor to find out their theme for the year.
  • Partner with the community: Grants from community groups, as well as PLT’s GreenWorks! program, helped pay for a greenhouse, a learning pavilion at nearby Caddo Lake, and other improvements. But it’s not all a question of what the community can do for the school. Students developed a butterfly garden for the hospital and care for flowers in concrete planters downtown. Families are involved in all aspects of school life.

Learning outside turned Oil City from a school on the way out to a place where things are happening for teachers and kids—inside the classroom and out.

EE_Saves_the_Day_ArticleNational Recognition

In addition to the awards mentioned above, Oil City’s turnaround was highlighted through feature articles in two prestigious educational publications: Science & Children, published by the National Science Teachers Association, and Educational Leadership, the flagship publication of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. (You can download (PDF) the full Science & Children article “Environmental Education Saves the Day.”)

Vanessa Bullwinkle

Vanessa Bullwinkle

Vanessa Bullwinkle is Director of Communications & Marketing for Project Learning Tree.

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