When the Jamestown Envirothon team went to their first tournament more than 15 years ago, they finished dead last with the lowest score in competition history. On Friday, at the National Conservation Foundation’s Envirothon Championships in Raleigh, North Carolina, they came out on top.
Competing against the best team from every state, as well as teams from as far away as Canada and China, the Jamestown group took home the title and $15,000 in scholarship money to be split among all five members.
For the victorious students, it was the crowning achievement of what was four years of effort as part of the Envirothon club. For many of the teachers and others who supported the team, it was proof of what they knew the program could achieve when properly supported.
Something to remember, something to build on
For members of team — Anna Song, Audrey Root, Rachel Smith, Joseph Kang and Lisa Small — winning brought a variety of reactions along with celebrations.
For Song, Root and Smith, who graduated from Jamestown in June, it was one last fond memory of high school and the Envirothon team each of them had been a member of since freshman year.
“We told ourselves going in that we would be happy placing wherever we placed, but when we were told we’d made the top 3, we started hoping we’d win, and then they told us that we had won, and it was like the floor fell from underneath us,” Smith said.
“I was hoping to end my time with the team on a strong note, but I hadn’t even dreamt of this. It still hasn’t quite sunken in yet.”
Smith, the team’s captain, will attend Virginia Tech in the fall, where she plans to major in biological systems engineering and environmental science.
Next year’s team captain, rising senior Small, said the loss of so many longtime members will be felt, but with the championship, comes the opportunity to build on that legacy with new students in the fall.
“The Envirothon program has really strengthened my high school experience. It provides you with observation skills, hands-on learning, and presentation skills that will definitely be needed for college and a career, but we really raised the bar this year,” Small said.
“It’s going to be exciting to come back next year, and while we are losing some longtime members, we’re looking forward to recruiting new members and building on that foundation.”
As for parting advice for her teammates and prospective new members, Smith shared the earliest thing she remembers being told as a freshman in the club.
“The most important thing that Mr. Dubay has taught me is the phrase ‘Shoot for the stars, and you land on the moon,’ to work hard and aim higher each time,” she said. “I have learned that shooting for the stars to land on the moon means that even if something seems impossible, always do your best, not to be overwhelmed or stop trying your best or stop trying to learn and make a difference and that sometimes, looking at the places it’s taken me, I’d say the view from the moon is pretty great.”
These kids are leaders
The students didn’t get where they are alone; local supporters and groups have worked with the Envirothon team for years.
Scott Thomas spent 17 years working with James City County, before taking a job with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation; he has worked with and mentored members of the team since 2011. As someone who has spent nearly three decades working in soil and water conservation, Thomas said he was “tickled pink” seeing the team win the competition.
“I remember when Mr. Dubay roped me in for the first time, and I’ve watched it become one of the most fulfilling things I have been involved with, professionally or personally,” Thomas said.
“Seeing them win on this level, it’s closure on a lot of things professionally, and it’s proof that if these kids really are the future, conservation is going to be in some amazing hands.”
That’s a sentiment shared by Sheila Jaruseski, office coordinator for Colonial Soil and Water Conservation District. Colonial Soil and Water has worked to connect team members with experts and local folks involved in agriculture for more than a decade, whether it be collecting local soil data or reaching out to Fox Wire Farms to offer insight on raising alpacas, to name one recent example.
“These kids are so dedicated and willing to learn, it doesn’t matter what you throw at them,” Jaruseski said. “We’ve worked with the club for the past 10 to 15 years, including the three that I’ve been here, and it’s always striking to see how these students conduct themselves.”
But working with them goes back even further for Jaruseski: Before taking her position with Colonial Soil and Water, she’d worked as a teacher in W-JCC, and some of the team members had been her students.
“Even back in fourth grade, these kids had that drive, that love of learning, and I’m not the least bit surprised to see how far it’s taken them and continues to take them,” Jaruseski said. “These kids are nearly all going to study environmental science in college, and they are going to be the leaders in this field, and there are times I’m still (left) speechless by that.”
Teaching and learning goes both ways
The Jamestown Envirothon club was started by science teacher Charles Dubay in 1997, the year the school opened. And since then, the club has built quite a legacy, According to Jamestown principal Howard Townsend IV.
“One of the great things about watching this program grow over the years was seeing what each group of young people not only takes away from it but what they put back into it,” Townsend said. “It’s been incredible to see not only how they’ve grown since freshman year, or what they’ve learned, but they’re tackling real-world problems, and researching ways to address them, and I’m proud to see some of our students passionately dealing with these challenges even at a young age.”
Townsend also points out how Envirothon not only instills some key skills in students -- be it how to conduct research or basic rhetoric -- but how in many ways, the program was ahead of the curve for some of the ongoing shifts in how childhood education is approached, changes that Jamestown has worked to adapt to.
“We’re seeing a shift in education today, where test scores aren’t good enough, where we are not only trying to teach students information but to teach them the problem-solving skills and creativity they need to solve problems on their own,” Townsend said.
“In that regard, the Envirothon team is a showcase of what students can do when taught how to think outside-the-box, how to not only pass a test but how to communicate, be creative and tackle problems.”
Townsend hopes the successes of the Envirothon team highlight what can be achieved by this new approach to education — that teaching the so-called “Five C’s” are just as important as test scores.
One the other hand, Dubay has an interesting hope for what Jamestown’s championship might inspire: local competition. Dubay said that while other schools in the region have talked about starting Envirothon teams, there has been some hesitation.
“I know there has been talk over the years, but it always peters out because some think Jamestown has the competition on lock,” he said. “I want to point out again to all of them that we certainly didn’t start that way, we’ve gone from the worst team in the competition to the world champion, and like anything else, it took time and support.”
He hopes that seeing Jamestown achieve a world title might finally get some of those schools to begin Envirothon teams of their own — if it changes their students as much as it has his own, he’d consider that a victory as important as any tournament.
“Envirothon is such a great event, and it has an enormous effect on all the kids involved, from public speaking to seeing how they impact the environment,” Dubay said. “That’s what you want to see from students, and if it can help even more students, that’s even better.”
Sean CW Korsgaard can be reached at 757-968-1529, by email firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @SCWKorsgaard.