Nov 29, 2023
When asked how she came to be a teacher, Valerie Hoyt-Parrish said, “I fell into it. It was purely accidental.” She had earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology and was working as a teacher’s assistant at Cutler Jewish School in 2007. She soon realized she had fallen in love with teaching and enjoyed interacting with students.
She asked the principal what she needed to do to become a teacher and was told to go back to school. After getting her masters and a classroom, she soon realized she really enjoyed teaching, Hoyt-Parrish went back for her doctorate before returning, once again, to Cutler.
Dr. Hoyt-Parrish feels small classrooms and the freedom associated with parochial schools allow teachers room to establish alternate learning methods as long as required subjects are covered during the school year. One of her unique methods was introducing elementary students to growing food.
There were raised beds near where we were talking, several other gardens in the area, including a pollinator garden, and due to a recent Green Our Planet Grant, a hydroponic garden sits inside the classroom. Green Our Planet is a nonprofit based in Clark County, Nevada
The association with a small winding stream nearby came about when a student asked her “what was on the other side of the parking lot.” She replied, “Let’s find out,” and plans to establish an outdoor centric classroom began. A 2009 first grade class was the initial recipient of this concept, and by the time Valerie became Doctor Hoyt-Parrish in 2018, each teachers’ contract included required outdoor teaching time.
The resulting area created an entirely new tool for educating kids about nature and it proved to be invaluable when COVID hit. As the pandemic became worse students were being directed to outside locations. Cutler already had such a place being used regularly.
Since then, the outdoor program has thrived. The aforementioned gardens, along with walkways and a canopied meeting area, have all been added to enhance the space, and every elementary student is exposed to this learning experience. Then Dr. Hoyt-Parrish, while working on a water quality teaching unit, brought Jay Cates from Water Systems Inc. to the stream.
The fifth grade class was looking for macroinvertebrates last May and Cates was searching for evidence. Instead, his indicator reported pollution. A follow-up test showed E.coli bacteria. DHEC got involved, and the summer was spent trying to determine where the pollution, if any, was coming from.
A frustrating several months followed with much discussion and not much problem solving. When fall classes resumed, the students weren’t allowed to interact with the creek. Ms. Val, as she is known at Cutler, decided keeping the children away from their beloved creek wasn’t an option. So she started making calls.
The first was to Chanda Cooper, conservation education analyst for Richland County’s Community Planning and Development Department. Cooper is among the first people contacted in the Midlands when there are conservation questions, including inquisitive news reporters. Cooper looped in Gills Creek Watershed Association (GCWA) executive director Bailey Slice Parker who decided to focus on the Adopt-a-Stream process, since the creek, even though small, was part of the Gills Creek Watershed.
Parker grabbed a monitoring kit and led Ms. Val’s class through the Adopt-a-Stream testing process. Results showed the dissolved oxygen in the water was abysmally low (bad for aquatic critters), and bacteria levels were alarmingly high (bad for tiny humans). With her refusal to accept keeping her students out of the creek as the end of the story, Ms. Val echoed the basic principle behind the existence of GCWA. How can we make it better?
The previous information is from an article written by Parker documenting the Gills Creek participation and explaining the steps involved in Adopt-a-Stream. The link to the full article is available here.
Monthly testing started November 21 and will continue as part of the process. Since the creek is small, there aren’t many possibilities as to pollution cause. Parker thinks pet waste or storm water runoff are the most likely culprits. The surrounding acreage is only between 35-40 acres so Gills Creek will start notifying surrounding property owners to advise them of ways they can help, and Cutler School is also getting involved.
A new GCWA program called Watershed Champion, just being rolled out, is already being implemented at Cutler. Teachers are offering other ideas to help, including the upcoming Jewish Holiday Tu Bishvat, which will happen January 24-25. This event literally means New Year of the Trees and is considered an example of Jewish sensitivity to the environment.
In addition, there will likely be interest in the results of this endeavor around the homes on Forest Lake, since this creek, tiny as it is, flows directly into that lake 24 hours a day. Anything happening in that creek affects the lake and all the homes bordering it. For more information, visit www.gillscreekwatershed.org. And stay tuned. This story isn’t finished.