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Tip of the Week – Might students’ academic achievement grow on trees?

It’s common knowledge, of course, that the shade provided by trees is welcome on a hot summer day, or that trees absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, thereby being essential to the life of all oxygen-breathers, including humans. Recently, however, Sustainable Orillia has come across research which suggests that trees play—or can play—a much more significant role in neighbourhoods. A report published in frontiers in Psychology (25 September, 2018) looks at the impact of trees on school property on the academic achievement of the students in the school itself. The study, entitled “Might School Performance Grow on Trees? Examining the Link Between “Greenness” and Academic Achievement in Urban, High-Poverty Schools, was
conducted between 2009 and 2010 and strongly suggests that significant tree presence on school property may have a positive impact on student achievement in math and reading—core abilities for student success.

The study examined the “greenness – academic achievement” relationship in a predominantly urban, low-income, minority school district in Chicago. Chicago Public Schools is the third largest school district in the U.S. and the study included 318 public elementary schools that serve a predominantly low-income population.

Why the focus on low-income population? Primarily because earlier studies had shown a correlation between greenness and academic achievement in schools in more well-off neighbourhoods. A prior study (Dadvand et al, 2015) had found that “children in greener schools showed more rapid cognitive development.” A second study, by Kweon et al. (2017), “[had] examined greenness on school property and found that schools with more tree cover performed better on standardized tests even after multiple confounding factors were taken into account.” This study’s authors wanted to know if the relationship would hold true in traditionally poorer neighbourhoods.

Interestingly, one of the findings of the study supported previous studies that suggested that “grass and shrub cover do not contribute to academic achievement whereas tree cover does.” The study also found that “school tree cover might be a more important factor in achievement than neighbourhood tree cover.” The study’s authors concluded that greenness—more specifically, school tree cover—had the greatest effect on school performance in math and, to a lesser extent, on school performance in reading.

The authors, in their conclusion, go on to suggest that the lack of tree cover in low-income areas is “not merely an aesthetic issue but an important environmental justice issue,” suggesting that “experimental greening efforts might focus on [planting trees on] school grounds and the areas within view of the school” in order to realize the gains in student academic achievement that appear to result from student exposure to nearby trees.

A study like this should lead to some reflection about how we build schools in our Ontario communities. Take a look at both elementary and high schools here in Orillia, for example. The practice seems to be to build a school and then surround it with a) a paved parking lot and b) playing fields (usually grass). Both OSS and Twin Lakes S.S. have been shorn of trees, though Twin does have a significant number of trees behind the school (but very few windows through which to see the trees from the inside). Frequently trees have been cleared in order to build the school in the first place.

If studies like the one cited in this article are suggesting that having trees on school property is a key to improved academic achievement, aren’t we missing something in our design of schools? There is not likely a less expensive way to affect the academic achievement of students within our school than planting trees in close proximity to the school buildings.

And yes, there might be some administrative objections to having (eventually) large trees close to a school, but isn’t the primary purpose of a school to have students succeed academically? Seems like a no-brainer to us. Let’s plant some trees.
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