San Diego’s East County is widely known for being home to some of our region’s most well-known outdoor spaces, from Mission Trails Regional Park and Lake Murray to the Cuyamaca and Laguna mountains. While one might imagine that living in East County would afford easy access to the outdoors for all, that is not always the case.

Thanks to a San Diego Foundation (SDF) Opening the Outdoors grant, Earth Discovery Institute (EDI) is making significant strides in environmental education and conservation efforts in East San Diego County. Partnering with the Cajon Valley Union School District, EDI is fostering environmental stewardship and enhancing students’ understanding of the natural world.

Through its grant, the nonprofit organization led nearly 200 El Cajon residents on hikes and provided outdoor education opportunities to nearly 1,000 fourth graders in Cajon Valley Union School District.

Meeting the Needs of Diverse Students

Earth Discovery Institute outing participants

Cajon Valley Union School District stretches along the Interstate-8 corridor from Fletcher Hills to just west of Alpine. Many of the district’s students are refugees or asylees from the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

According to Brookings Institution:

  • 52% of the student body are from minority groups
  • 33% are classified as English language learners
  • Approximately 70% of students receive free or reduced-price meals, a common measure of the proportion of low-income families in a district

EDI’s collaboration with Cajon Valley is particularly impactful given the district’s diverse community. EDI customizes its programs to meet the needs of students from various cultural backgrounds, ensuring that environmental education is accessible and relevant to all. This involves providing bilingual resources and working closely with Cajon Valley’s Family and Community Engagement office to facilitate communication with non-English-speaking families.

The district office employs bilingual community liaisons to bridge the gap between schools and families, ensuring that parents are actively involved in their children’s education. This collaborative approach helps build a strong community around environmental education, encouraging families to participate in conservation efforts, both at home and in their communities.

Through these family visits, El Cajon residents enjoy a unique, first-time experience in the outdoors.

“Woah, it’s like I can see the whole entire world with the binoculars!” said a member of a family visiting the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge with EDI.

Impact and Outcomes

Earth Discovery Institute outing participants

The partnership between EDI and the Cajon Valley Union School District yielded positive outcomes. Students showed an increased interest in science and a greater awareness of environmental issues. The hands-on nature of EDI’s programs also helped solidify students’ understanding and retention of ecological concepts, fostering a growing appreciation for the environment.

“Wow, I never knew the inside of a tree could be so beautiful!” said a Johnson Elementary student at a field trip visit to Crestridge Ecological Reserve, located about three miles east of the city of El Cajon.

The programs also have a broader impact on the community. By involving parents and community members, EDI and Cajon Valley Unified School District create a culture of environmental stewardship that extends beyond the classroom. This holistic approach not only enhances students’ educational experiences but also promotes sustainable practices within the community.

Power of Community

Earth Discovery Institute outing participants

The Earth Discovery Institute’s work with the Cajon Valley Union School District exemplifies the power of community-based environmental education.

By integrating hands-on learning with a strong emphasis on cultural relevance and community involvement, EDI is helping to nurture a new generation of environmentally conscious San Diegans. This partnership not only enriches students’ academic lives but also contributes to the overall well-being and sustainability of the community.

As EDI continues to expand its programs, it stands as a model for how environmental education can be effectively implemented in diverse and dynamic school districts.

About Opening the Outdoors

Nature is not an amenity but a necessity for the well-being of all San Diegans. However, many local communities lack critical access to parks and green space, as demonstrated in our Parks for Everyone 2020 report. Equitable access to parks and green space is more important than ever before to ensure every San Diegan has a strong quality of life.

Since 2010, the Opening the Outdoors Program has connected, protected and increased equitable access to the outdoors across the county by supporting 90 local nonprofit organizations and helping 75,000-plus San Diegans access the outdoors.

Learn More: Opening the Outdoors Program

Photo Credits: Earth Discovery Institute