Sustainability education as collective with community partners

In all the schools teachers highlighted the importance of networks of relationships between schools and the wider community. The networks were described as a central feature of most schools' sustainability practice. This was particularly the case for the smaller rural schools that relied significantly on connections with nearby schools and parents who were vital to the implementation of sustainability education. The practices of sustainability were essentially shaped by ideas and actions shared between principals, teachers, students, parents, local community members, businesses and external organisations such as Landcare and Waterwatch, all coming together within these places. The involvement of groups of people who were external to the school played a direct role in the nature and scope of sustainability and influenced the types of sustainability projects and initiatives available to schools.

Teachers cited examples of collaboration with several stakeholders that included other principals and teachers, parents, sustainability education officers (local government) and coordinators, local farmers, tradespeople, conservation groups, volunteers and other community organisations as a way of strengthening their sustainability education. Community members with different sorts of expertise were invited into schools for presentations and discussions with children, and conversely children and teachers left the school grounds to work alongside community members on specific local environmental projects. Through these programmes the school boundary, literally and metaphorically, becomes more porous. Community members are directly involved in the education of the community's children, and sustainability learning is a collective and meaningful activity. Although the nature of school/community relations varied from school to school, teachers emphasised the significance of the partnerships for providing shared collective knowledge and visions of the future that were underpinned by diverse skill sets, mindsets, expertise and community heritage. Community members came as volunteers and offered invaluable resources to support the school's initiatives.

Having people on shire (council) that were prepared to listen to what we had to say, having access to things like the mulch to do the gardens out the front; there've been people that will come in and do little jobs. Partnerships we've formed with the woodworking crew and the woodcrafters, with Landcare, the Free Rivers Landcare group, have all had direct impact on what the school's been able to do. It's been people using their local contacts that's helped a lot. Without them things just wouldn't happen. Most of our volunteers are people who have no connections to the school whatsoever. So they're not grandparents and they're not aunties or uncles. They are just community members who believe in the [sustainability] program. And we're getting more and more of those, they just come off the street and say, 'Can I come and volunteer?'

(Principal interview)

Partnerships with Landcare and Waterwatch (local government organisations with an emphasis on land conservation and water science) were common in many of the rural schools. These groups initiated action-based projects for children in local waterways restoration with community farmers, water monitoring projects in neighbouring creeks and tree planting on nearby rail trails. Landcare assisted with the donation and construction of second hand poly tunnels and glasshouses at three of the schools to use for raising seeds and seedlings intended for future conservation projects. At one school, children raised over 1,000 trees that were sold back to the local Landcare group as part of the Growing Natives project.

We have a relationship with Cowwarr Land Care Group and have maintained that relationship and they've supported us in getting regeneration projects up and running. And we've been able to start growing natives from the local trees, so the children go out and collect seeds from our trees and from the trees at Rainbow Park just down the road. And then basically grow those up to replant them within the community as well. And so, having the kids feel like they have a lasting footprint, a positive footprint in their environment but also their community, that they've done something to support the community.

(Principal interview)

At another school a teacher linked a school gardening programme to a local community garden as a way of making links between children's garden knowledge and community. These connections to the histories and heritage of the community's involvement with this particular community garden extend their knowledge of sustainability into the social realm.

As part of our gardening program we've visited the community garden. We tend to do that at least once a year so the kids could have a look at the garden when the fruits are in season. There's a very old tree in the community garden that's over 300 years old and we often sit there and discuss what would it have been like when that was only 100 years old and talk about the Indigenous children sitting around and camping underneath it and playing up the tree perhaps and those sort of things. And trying to get them to look back a little bit at what it would have been like a while ago. And we talk about the volunteers that come into the garden and the reason why they come into the garden and why we're growing a community garden so they've got some idea about not only growing a garden but the social aspects of why that garden is there.

(Gardening teacher interview)

In taking the children to the community garden the teacher recognises the shared history of the place with the tree, the Indigenous people of the past and the current volunteers who keep the place going. In referring to the social aspects of sustainability practice this teacher highlights the unfolding relational dynamics that occur when communities enact shared goals and visions. In another example of school/community partnerships, woodcrafters from a community Men's Shed mentored small groups of disengaged boys to build furniture and nesting boxes. Similar intergenerational opportunities emerged when students from another school were encouraged to share their kitchen garden skills at weekly markets where they sold bottled jams and preserves that they had produced at the school as part of gardening and cooking lessons. Initially designed as an entrepreneurial venture, the teacher explained that the market experience generated new interactions with the community.

We initially started off with the children working up the street with the kitchen garden at the local farmers' market where they would go and cook dips and use the produce from the school and take it around to the local people who were at the market. And they loved doing that. They loved sharing what they were learning at the school and what they were making. And people were astounded by what they were actually capable of doing and what they were eating. They just were amazed at how much these children knew.

(Gardening teacher interview)

The local farmers' market is a gathering of general community members who come together for the purpose of buying, selling and exchanging locally produced food. In taking their place in the farmers market the children are playing an active role in the establishment and maintenance of alternative ecosystems that support sustainable living practices.

These examples demonstrate some of the ways that children, through their teachers and schools, are connected to the wider community, and communities are connected with schools to share expertise and participate in shared sustainability projects. The impact and generative nature of school/community partnerships reflect the sense of momentum and purpose that comes with collaborative approaches. Through the schools' practice of sustainability education, broader collectives are formed, and in turn these partnerships enable their sustainability programmes to be more enduring. Sustainability practices are substantially enhanced and enlivened when schools and the wider community work cooperatively in collective projects that draw on existing assets, resources and expertise. Collaborations with community partners enact the notion of the collective 'we', the critical project, the very social enterprise where we start where we are.

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