Nichole Berg starts climate justice work in PPS in first-of-its-kind position11/26/2019
Earlier this year, Nichole Berg was scrolling through Facebook while visiting family when she came upon something that would change her life: a job description. The life-long Wisconsinite, then a vice principal at a Madison middle school, read about a position in Portland Public Schools she had never heard of before: Programs Manager for Climate Change and Climate Justice.
“It lines up with all the professional experience that I’ve had, as well as my professional goals to really work in curriculum, work in student engagement, and my commitment to climate justice,” she recalled thinking. “It really lines up.”
She applied, got the job and moved across the country. She started her new role on Sept. 23 with a full day, capped by a presentation at a Board of Education meeting (see below). It is believed to be the first role of its kind in any district in the country.
“This is a really innovative position, and I’m really excited about it,” Berg said.
Berg is hard at work in helping to develop K-12 climate justice curriculum that will go into science and social studies classes district wide, and a high school elective course that will provide access to crucial climate information, as well as credit recovery for students who need it. While the district already incorporates climate change teaching into some K-5 classes and high school science, Berg is helping to create a cohesive curriculum.
Berg also is charged with engaging with students and stakeholders and will work with a Student Advisory Council to draw student voices into the curriculum process, particularly voices that have not been involved historically.
“The students are very impressive,” Berg said. “Every student I’ve met so far is just able to articulate their concerns, their needs, and they’re very passionate. They’re also in a really nice position to help lead us in terms of how we, as a system, can become more educationally responsive to them.”
Berg’s own education was not always responsive. A third generation Mexican-American, she did not speak Spanish at home, but learned the language in school starting in middle school. Her schools in Wisconsin, however, were monolingual campuses, where students had to assimilate into an English-speaking culture. That sparked Berg’s interest in social justice. After a brief flirtation with law school, she turned to education as a career, serving as a paraprofessional, bilingual teacher and vice principal.
“It’s always been with a lens of justice at the center,” she said. “Being a bilingual person and working in bilingual education in a predominantly monolingual system is liberatory in nature.”
She expanded her world through grants that allowed her to travel to learn about First Nations communities, including Olmec and Mayan civilizations in Mexico, and the Ancestral Puebloans of Mesa Verde in the Badlands of South Dakota. Five years ago, Berg received a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship that allowed her to travel to Antarctica, where she saw firsthand the effects of climate change, including the impact on penguin populations, overfishing of krill and a rare summer snowstorm.
“It really opened my eyes to the climate crisis and helped me understand why we should be concerned about climate change,” she said.
She used her experiences to inform curriculum in Madison, and now brings it to PPS. Berg’s work will see her take the lead in implementing the Board resolution to increase climate literacy, and it fits like a glove in a district in which about 6,000 students took part in the September Climate Justice Strike, and aligns with PPS’s core curriculum and Vision for a graduate portrait.
“I’m just really excited to get the work going,” she said.
Anyone who would like to connect with Berg can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 503-916-3874.