NJ School of Conservation a resource for educators 

The New Jersey School of Conservation holds an important place in the history of education in New Jersey. Founded on the site of a former New Deal-Era Civilian Conservation Corps camp, the school is North America’s oldest year-round residential environmental center. For 75 years, thousands of children from across New Jersey have visited the School of Conservation through school visits and summer camp opportunities. 

While there, students have a rare opportunity to unplug from their devices, turn off their cell phones and interact with nature. Many students have been so inspired by their experiences at the School of Conservation that they have decided to pursue careers in environmental science, research, education, engineering and law. 

Yet decades of underinvestment, coupled with the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost forced the school to close for good. 

Thankfully, a dedicated group of alumni, organized as the Friends of the New Jersey School of Conservation, worked to reopen the campus and restart programming during the height of the pandemic. The Friends group advocated for legislation, ultimately signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, that gave them long-term management of the state-owned school. Working with Murphy and champions in the Legislature, they have secured millions of dollars of state investment to bring the school’s more than 50 buildings up to code so that students could safely return. 

“The future of the New Jersey School of Conservation is bright because people from across our state came together to advocate for an educational treasure that has served thousands of students for 75 years,” said Kerry Kirk Pflugh “We’re excited to have emerged from this crisis in a position to deepen our commitment to being an educational leader that will serve our state’s changing needs.” 

For Pflugh, the fight to save and strengthen the school is a deeply personal one—she grew up on campus as the daughter of late director John Kirk. 

A new chapter  

Organized under a new and expanded board of trustees that includes representatives from the business community, environmental advocates and education—including NJEA President Sean M. Spiller—the school wants to build on its incredible history to meet the changing educational needs of the 21st century. 

As part of that mission, the School of Conservation is pioneering new curricula that help teachers meet the state’s new climate change standards. And they are also working on new programs to teach students about social and emotional learning to give them tools to respond to the growing mental health crisis plaguing classrooms across the nation. 

At the same time, the School of Conservation has begun welcoming schools back to campus for two- and three-day overnight trips and is also relaunching robust summer programming. 

“We believe one of the best ways to amplify our educational work is to give teachers tools to take what we do at the School of Conservation and apply it in their own classrooms,” said Tanya Sulikowski, the school’s director of education and a former researcher and classroom teacher. “We have worked with master educators to develop world-class curricula that put us at the forefront of environmental education, and we want to serve as a resource for teachers from across our state.” 

Programs for educators 

The school is hosting two workshops in the coming months that touch on different aspects of environmental science. The first, on May 18, is an Educators’ Open House that will help demonstrate the school’s approach to hands-on learning. The second opportunity is a week-long residential program beginning August 19 for middle- and high-school teachers.