An Evaluation of the Project Seasons Outreach Program, 2007-08

Amy L. Powers, Elizabeth Lowe, and PEER Associates, Inc.

Brief Summary of Key Evaluation Findings

The evaluation found that the Project Seasons Outreach program:

  • is a rich model with a positive start and is ripe with potential for future success.
  • increased the curricular integration of Craftsbury’s gardening and seed saving projects.
  • created valuable, sustainable community connections.
  • motivated students to eat fresh vegetables during field trips to local farms.

The evaluation also shed light on learning opportunities for maximizing successful program elements. In particular, these factors were found to be beneficial:

  • providing an accessible program coordinator and regularly scheduled meetings to help maintain organization and communication.
  • cultivating a corps of willing, trained program volunteers.
  • having ready access to local field trip opportunities.

These findings are expanded upon more fully below. Following the findings are the conclusions and recommendations sections. The Appendix includes the complete evaluation plan, interview guides, and a Site Selection Rating Tool.

Introduction

Shelburne Farms and the Project Seasons Outreach Program

The Project Seasons Outreach Program is offered by Shelburne Farms, whose mission is to cultivate a conservation ethic by teaching and demonstrating the stewardship of natural and agricultural resources. The Project Seasons curriculum guide is a collection of seasonal interdisciplinary activities and teaching ideas that encourage hands-on investigation of the ecological and agricultural world.

 Shelburne Farms offers Project Seasons workshops for farmers and educators to learn activities that focus on tracing the food they eat and clothes they wear back to farm origins. Workshop participants can then help students and community members make the same connections. All education programs at Shelburne Farms, including family, field trip, camp, and off-site programming are developed with the Project Seasons approach.  In 2005, Shelburne Farms launched its Project Seasons Outreach program to bring the Project Seasons experience to a broader geographic region and better meet the demand for school-based programs. The Project Seasons Outreach program trains local volunteers to assist schools and educators with field and classroom based experiences that focus on utilizing the community to enhance classroom curriculum. The program also provides educators with Shelburne Farms professional development support for curriculum integration. The Outreach program’s pilot efforts were in Burlington and later in Craftsbury.

The design of the Outreach Program has also benefitted from connections with a volunteer-driven effort initiated in 1994 in South Hero by a local parent and former Shelburne Farms staff member. This initiative, called The Land, The Farms and Me, uses the Project Seasons curriculum guide as a basis for its volunteer-led lessons, and several South Hero educators have attended the Project Seasons one week institute. Although this program is not sponsored by Shelburne Farms, it shares a similar mission and strategy with the Project Seasons Outreach Program. In designing an evaluation of the evolving Outreach program, stakeholders elected to investigate outcomes and processes at work in its pilot community in Craftsbury, and to simultaneously explore features of South Hero’s version of the program. To that end, interviews with four key players in South Hero are included, while the bulk of the evaluation’s focus is on the Craftsbury Program.

Craftsbury is a small, rural community in Vermont’s northeast kingdom. The small elementary school where the program is focused serves roughly 60 children in grades K-4. Craftsbury is home to several working farms and an alternative/progressive undergraduate college called Sterling College. The elementary school was involved in several agricultural and natural history-related academic pursuits prior to the inception of Project Seasons Outreach.

Evaluation Methods

In the spring of 2008, Shelburne Farms hired PEER Associates, Inc., an external evaluation firm, to conduct an evaluation of the Project Seasons Outreach program. Program staff who are guiding the program beyond its pilot years were identified as the primary stakeholders in the evaluation. The evaluation sought to explore the following overarching questions:

Outcomes Questions:

  • In what ways (if any) has the presence of Project Seasons Outreach in this community changed the level and type of community based learning in each community's school?
  • Has the level of community involvement in the school changed? If so, in what ways?
  • What kinds of connections are being made between volunteer-led programs and field trips and educators' classroom curricula?

Process Questions:

  • What barriers exist in doing this work in the communities and schools? Which are inevitable here, and which could be addressed by the program in the future?
  • Considering that educators often have a "crowded" curriculum, and many organizations are offering to work with schools, how can an "outside" organization like Shelburne Farms best demonstrate a program's relevance to the curriculum and be clear about the program's purpose and structure at the beginning of and throughout an initiative within the school?
  • What elements of this program are most critical to its staying power? What are the minimum inputs needed to maintain program effects over time?  

In order to answer these questions, the external evaluation team conducted phone interviews with participants in the Project Seasons Outreach program in Craftsbury and South Hero, and conducted a focus group with program staff. The interviews, and the resulting data and reporting, are more squarely focused on the Craftsbury pilot project, since South Hero had very distinct origins and evolution.

In summary, the Project Seasons Outreach program evaluation consisted of the following data sources:

Craftsbury Phone Interviews: (n=12)

  • 6 Educators
  • 4 Parent volunteers
  • 1 Community Partner/Farmer
  • 1 Administrator

South Hero Phone Interviews: (n=3)

  • 1 Community Partner
  • 1 Elementary school teacher
  • 1 Program volunteer, co-coordinator, and parent

In-person Focus Group:

  • 5 Shelburne Farms professional development program staff
  • 1 Program founder, parent, and volunteer from South Hero

Other data source:

  • Review of relevant program documents
  • Ongoing phone, email, and in-person communication with key program staff member

Detailed field notes were taken during interviews, and the interviews were recorded and transcribed. These notes and transcriptions were then analyzed for emergent themes. This report summarizes key findings from the data, which are found below in a brief summary and then a more detailed narrative. Conclusions and recommendations are found at the end of the report. The Appendix contains the interview guides, evaluation plan, and a Site Selection Rubric which was also developed as a separate but related aspect of this evaluation process.
 

Pedagogical Area
  • agricultural/ food education
Outcome Area
  • stewardship behavior