Lessons from Idaho’s teacher of the year

Jamie Esler, snowpack research
Through snowpack sampling, Jamie Esler’s Lake City High School students are exposed to field research, and the larger debate over climate change.

In order to understand the effects of climate change in Idaho, you need to know snow.

And there’s only one best way to learn about snow, says Jamie Esler, a science teacher from Coeur d’Alene’s Lake City High School. “So we take them to the snow.”

Esler was named Idaho’s teacher of the year in November — for working to get high school students into the laboratory of the great outdoors. The centerpiece of his efforts, the Confluence Project, brings together students from six high schools: Idaho’s Lake City, Lewiston, Potlatch, Post Falls, St. Maries high schools, and eastern Washington’s Gar-Pal high school. Four more schools want in on the project next year.

But when Esler came to the Statehouse this week, he shared a success story and delivered a challenge. Programs like his need stable, dependable state funding to survive and grow.

Sampling the snow

Esler’s enthusiasm is infectious, and when it comes to putting on snowshoes, hiking to the Panhandle’s Lookout Pass and digging snow pits, it’s pretty much an unrestrained enthusiasm. “That’s my favorite day of the whole school year.”

But there was an important subtext to Thursday’s expedition. About 80 percent of Idaho’s precipitation falls in the form of snow, so warmer and drier winters will have a profound effect on agriculture, recreation and ecosystems. The local mountains provide students a laboratory into the global issue of climate change.

And the real learning occurs after the snowshoeing and the sampling — when students are back in the classroom, comparing their results with 60 years of scientific results from the same sites. The numbers and the trends bring the implications of climate change into closer focus — and this week, they prompted a debate among Lake City students on the Confluence Project’s student blog.

“After our field trip it became obvious to me that keeping tabs on our snowfall levels is extremely vital for our water use in Coeur d’Alene,” wrote one student. “I don’t think I had realized before just how much we really do rely on the snowfall to supply our lakes and rivers. When skiing/snowboarding I don’t think about the actual amount of snow that I am riding over.”

Said another student: “The field work didn’t affect my view point on freshwater budgeting because there was quite a bit of snow on the mountain. At least at a normal level, and I didn’t hear any real concerns during the trip.”

A third student summed up the day — a day students described, by turns, as exhausting, chilling and exhilarating. “Never have I felt so accomplished after doing something that was strictly school related. From this day forward, we as a class are more fit to conquer any sort of obstacles that involve what we went through on this very day.”

A comprehensive project

A linchpin of the Confluence Project is field research — a term Esler prefers to “field trips.” But the field research just scratches the surface of the project.

“It’s got the whole kit,” Esler said this week.

The project incorporates the new Idaho Core Standards in English language arts, as students write about their findings.

The project hinges on the Idaho Education Network broadband project, and videoconferencing connects students that are two hours apart by car.

By working with graduate students in the University of Idaho’s Waters of the West program, Confluence Project students get exposure to what awaits in a post-high school learning environment.

And in April, the high school students’ work will culminate in a two-day Youth Water Summit at the U of I. The students will get a firsthand feel for working in teams, writing abstracts and delivering research papers in a scholarly setting.

Growth and uncertainty

Like a mountain stream during spring snowmelt, the Confluence Project is poised for growth.

Expansion plans include four more high schools to the project, as well as several new partners — the state Department of Environmental Quality, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute, an environmental nonprofit.

But that growth depends on money — specifically, a $200,000 Environmental Protection Agency grant. Coupled with $66,667 in matching funds from project partners, this money would also pay for professional development and training before the 2014-15 school year, and a second Youth Water Summit in 2015.

Esler is confident that the grant will come through this spring. But he also realizes the stakes are high. If the EPA’s money doesn’t come through, he believes the program will unravel and will lose its ties to the U of I.

That was part of Esler’s message to legislators this week.

Innovative programs such as the Confluence Project hinge on the “laborious” process of grant-writing, Esler said. Every hour spent writing grants is an hour that can’t be spent on classwork. If Idaho is serious about a “K-through-career” system — one of Gov. Butch Otter’s recurring themes — state funding is the key to growing new initiatives.

“If we are really going to do that, the investment has to be made,” Esler said.

Esler’s appeal for state funding, for putting money into classrooms instead of state savings accounts, drew a muted reaction.

Senate Education Committee chairman John Goedde — a Coeur d’Alene Republican who sent his children to Lake City — thanked Esler for his “impassioned” testimony. But he defended the state’s decisions to build savings accounts that education groups wanted to drain, early in the Great Recession.

Monday’s committee meeting ended cordially, with Goedde saying he looked forward to meeting with Elser after the session.

“You can help me grade some papers, perhaps,” said Esler.

Said Goedde: “Only if you give me the answers.”

About the teacher of the year — and Jamie Esler

The Idaho Teacher of the Year program began in 1959. A selection committee representing teachers, education leaders, parents and legislators from across the state select the teacher of the year, who receives $1,000 from the State Department of Education, an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., and represents Idaho as a National Teacher of the Year nominee.

Esler is in his sixth year in teaching — a background that includes substitute teaching in Illinois and tutoring a home-schooled family in the Alaskan bush country. At Lake City, he teaches ninth- and tenth-grade physical science; an international baccalaurate class in environmental science; a dual-enrollment class with the University of Washington on climate science and climate change.

VIDEO: Here’s an excerpt of Esler’s testimony before the Senate Education Committee Monday.