Stories from the Field

From NatureBridge Student to Champion Teacher: Mary Patterson

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Mary and a group of Longfellow Middle School students in Yosemite.

Middle school teacher Mary Patterson still has her field journal from the 1978 trip she took to NatureBridge (formerly Yosemite Institute) with her Cupertino classmates for a week-long environmental science program. She remembers the friendships she formed, the teamwork it took to hike Upper Yosemite Falls, the comradery formed during snowshoeing and the overall impact of experiencing a national park at that formative age.

Nearly two and a half decades later, Mary introduced NatureBridge to her eighth grade students at Longfellow Middle School in Berkeley, California. A longtime champion for youth, Mary began her teaching career in Berkeley in 1990 as a high school Spanish teacher. In 2003, she was asked to be the founding teacher of Longfellow Middle School’s Spanish-English dual immersion language program.

Since its founding, the program has witnessed wild growth and success. Within 10 years, the program jumped from 15 to 160 students. As the East Bay Express reported in 2011, 95% percent of students in Mary’s first two-way immersion program went on to become high school graduates. In addition to continuing the program today, she also helps lead the Berkeley Unified School District's AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program at Longfellow, which helps under-represented students map out a path to college.

Reflecting on the transformative experience she had at Yosemite, Mary sought to create the same opportunity for her own students. In 2006, she brought the inaugural group of Longfellow Middle School students to NatureBridge. And year after year since, Mary has been a resolute advocate in ensuring that all Longfellow 8th graders have the opportunity to experience Yosemite National Park, primarily because she knows that not all students would have the opportunity otherwise.

“In our community, some kids are just not open to spending time outdoors,” said Mary. “A lot of our students are nervous about the idea of nature and camping. They are kids who have grown up in a city and may not have had many of those experiences. So when we decided we were going to take every single student, we had to work really hard.”

Representation is one of the biggest factors in encouraging students to sign up for NatureBridge. When kids see others who look, sound and dress like them, they are more inclined to sign up, Mary explained. 

“Our policy is that no student gets to say no unless one of the chaperone teachers has discussed the trip with them and their families,” said Mary. “Sometimes it’s because they believe their parents will say no due to cost. When we follow up with the parents and reassure them we have ample scholarships, they say yes.”

The NatureBridge program addresses the experiential gap among our students, in which some have far greater opportunities to travel and participate in outdoor education than others.
Mary Patterson, Longfellow Middle School Teacher

In addition to doing all she can to ensure the program feels inclusive, Mary works hard to make NatureBridge financially accessible for all. Some kids don’t pay a penny, she says, and with significant support from NatureBridge’s scholarship fund, as well as the Longfellow school budget, the local Berkeley Schools Enrichment Fund and the Berkeley Public Schools Fund, they make it happen—year after year.

“We know we can count on a generous scholarship from NatureBridge because of our free and reduced lunch numbers,” she said. “We also rely on our PTA and some families pay extra or even double. The community loves this program, and they love our kids.”

Mary’s own three children have all had the opportunity to experience NatureBridge in Yosemite, bringing the program full circle. One of her sons even went on to attend National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS)—the well known nonprofit global wilderness school in Wyoming.

As Mary reflected on one of her recent eighth grade classes, she emphasized how transformative the NatureBridge program is for the kids she serves.

“At Longfellow, we believe that the greatest graduation gift we can offer our students is a NatureBridge experience,” she said. “Students leave Yosemite with higher self-esteem, pride in their accomplishments, and are ready and eager to face the challenges of high school and beyond. This program gives students of diverse backgrounds a crash course in the great need for all humans to become conservationists and protectors of the environment.” 

When my group visited the base of the falls, I got as close as I could, and just fell into a trance. I stood there, soaking up the mist, watching the water come crashing down. The feeling I experienced there is just impossible to describe. And the thought that every kid in the 8th grade had the same opportunity is breathtaking.
Caetano Abramsonward, Longfellow 8th Grader, May 2017

NatureBridge is the highlight of her year too. In addition to serving as a life-changing experience for her students and own children, Mary says that NatureBridge has also led to professional growth.

“There is an educator that I have to mention: Mark. We call him Tio Mark,” she said. “He is tremendous, a phenomenal educator and an inspiration. NatureBridge is not just for the kids. With a great NatureBridge educator, it’s professional development for teachers—you learn a different way of teaching and a different way of being with kids.”

Mary will once again bring this year’s 8th graders from Longfellow to Yosemite in early May 2020.

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