LifeChanger of the Year Nominee Profile

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Anne Stires

Position: Director
School: Juniper Hill School
School District: Juniper Hill School
City, State: Alna, ME

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Anne Stires was nominated by Ross Steelman, the parent of a student.

Ms. Stires is being recognized for her ongoing excellence in bringing out the best in children; and for her daily dedication to bringing the benefits of Place-Based Education to all students, everywhere. Under her leadership, the Juniper Hill School for Place-Based Education has a cadre of dedicated, talented, and inspiring teachers and support staff, all of whom work to ensure an atmosphere of enrichment and discovery in the lives of their students.

Ms. Stires recognizes the importance of place, connection to nature, and the direct relationship between healthy bodies, healthy minds, and healthy hearts. She grew up on her grandmother’s farm in Alna, bordering the Sheepscot River, in Maine. Her young years were spent exploring, imagining, and observing the world around her through the lens of this particular place, this “garden of adventure” as she has called it, supported by the loving community around her.

As she was preparing for her career as an educator, she turned to these early experiences for inspiration in designing an antidote to our cultural devaluation of “play,” our fading connection to the natural world (with all the mistreatment of the environment that permits), and our children’s increasing reliance upon passive activity. She knew she needed to answer the rapidly accelerating movement away from direct experience with a powerful vision of place and immersive engagement. She wanted to create a model for how children could unplug, regain their autonomy, and unleash their curiosity. Fortunately, her grandmother’s farm was still in the family, and her family was supportive (she comes from a long line of educators). The Juniper Hill School for Place-Based Education was born.

What is Place-Based Education? It's learning that is rooted in what is local – the unique history, environment, economy, literature, and art of a particular place. Place-Based Education:

• Grows from the specific natural and human-created environment students live in;
• Cuts across all academic subjects and invites interdisciplinary work;
• Engages students in the community and the community in the education of the students, and;
• Promotes academic and intellectual rigor and active, responsible citizenship.

This core concept animates all learning at Juniper Hill School. As a practical matter, this means the children are outdoors almost all the time, with most learning taking place in outdoor classrooms throughout the year. This is no easy feat, being in Maine! As a result, the children develop strong, healthy bodies, the best foundation for strong and healthy minds.

The Values of the Juniper Hill School are simple:
• In order to know each child, there must exist a close relationship between families and Juniper Hill School. The curriculum is enriched by the expertise and varied experiences of students’ family members.
• The concept of community is integral to Place-Based Education. Community starts with home and school and expands in ever-widening circles as students become aware of their roles in their towns, their state, their country, and the world.
• Juniper Hill School allows time for children to grow and learn at their own pace through exploration, opportunity, support and guidance.
• An integrated curriculum supports academic rigor. The faculty has high expectations of its students, and they create assessments for project work and determine readiness for class level placements.
• In striving to create a culture of emotional intelligence, each child’s unique experiences, feelings, and needs are valued and validated.

The impact on the students has been astounding. One child joined the school as a seven-year-old with serious social and academic challenges. She was a gifted child, but her anxiety around social interactions had her spiraling out of control, and she was suspended twice from her old school. Although she knew how to read, she hated reading and refused to do so. She also refused to participate in group activities and had decided for herself that disruption was the best response to her own feelings of vulnerability. Within two weeks of joining Jupiter Hill, she was finding her place as a valued member of her class – and one of her favorite activities was curling up with a good chapter book!

Self-confidence beams from students' faces as they concoct experiments, climb trees, and collaborate to solve problems, answer questions, and enjoy each other’s company. The children unplug; screen time is restricted throughout the school week, both before and after school. Children relearn what it means to entertain themselves without the crutch of an electronic gadget. Children come home from school happy and tired – and looking forward to going back to school the next day. A typical scene at the bridging ceremony at the end of each school year includes teary-eyed children, sad that the
end of the school year is upon them, yearning for the end of summer.

Ms. Stires has a bachelor’s degree in Biology and English from Hamilton College in New York and a master's degree in Education from Antioch University New England. While pursuing her education, she worked at local marine and environmental stewardship programs: the Darling Marine Center, Chewonki Foundation, and Tanglewood Learning Center. She also directed a Place-Based Education program for 25 schools on the mid-coast region of Maine for the Quebec-Laborador Foundation Marine Program.

As a classroom teacher, she taught at Sheepscot Valley Children’s House in Wiscasset and Boothbay Region Elementary School before starting her ideal, hands-on learning “place”: Juniper Hill. She is a prolific keynote speaker and advocate on the topic of nature-based education. A few years ago, she wrote a chapter of the new book: Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens: The Handbook for Outdoor Learning by David Sobel (with Patti Ensel Bailie, Ken Finch, Erin K. Kenny, and Anne Stires), available on Redleaf Press. Juniper Hill School is featured throughout the book.

In addition to being the school founder and director, Ms. Stires teaches Wellness classes to students, hosts hundreds of educational observers at the school, teaches workshops at conferences, and consults with educators all across Maine (and some projects nationally) at their sites. She also teaches graduate level courses for Antioch University and as part of Juniper Hill School’s Summer Educator Institute. She is dedicated to bringing the benefits of place-based education to all students, everywhere.

"Anne has changed the lives of the children and families within our small community as well as the lives of the families and children who will have access to these benefits thanks to her tireless outreach efforts to other educators, superintendents, and social service providers," said Steelman.