RISE and Shine: Wetlands Watch

RISE Challenge winner Wetlands Watch pilots first high school level “green” landscape certification program

RISE Resilience Innovations
5 min readDec 14, 2021

A new program recently launched by RISE Challenge winner Wetlands Watch and partners is offering high school students a glimpse into the world of Chesapeake-Bay-friendly landscape practices — and potentially a leg up into a future job or career.

The Norfolk-based nonprofit is partnering with Portsmouth, Virginia public schools to integrate an entry-level sustainable landscapes training and credentialing administered by the Chesapeake Conservation Landscape Council into Churchland High School’s existing class on horticulture science.

It’s an extension of the Chesapeake Bay Landscaping Professional (CBLP) program, which launched in 2016 as part of a consortium-led effort to promote sustainable landscaping skills and green infrastructure practices among professionals working in the Bay’s watershed. Wetlands Watch was awarded a grant from RISE to build a resilient workforce by expanding the CBLP through this youth-focused training and career development program.

Shereen Hughes, assistant director of Wetlands Watch and coordinator of the CBLP program in Virginia, said RISE funding has helped offset the cost of piloting the Chesapeake Bay Landscape Professional-Associate (CBLP-A) program for high school students in Hampton Roads and helps remove financial barriers that might discourage participation. The nonprofit established a cost-share and training agreement arrangement with recent partnering organizations such as the Elizabeth River Project, which hosted CBLP-A interns at its Paradise Creek Nature Park this past summer, as well as Portsmouth Public Schools, covering half of both the $3,500 partner initiation fee and the students’ $50 registration fees, which are paid to the Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council. During the pilot,
the program delivery is adapted to support partner programs and
CBLP expert trainers and program developers, such as Hughes and
David Hirschman of Hirschman Water and Environment, LLC,
train and mentor CBLP-A partner instructors to deliver the
program independently over time.

“We loved the idea of getting the CBLP-A program into the school system because then it’s just really equitable,” Hughes said. “Any student can go through it and the school is covering the (other half of the) registration fee.”

Students visit Old Dominion University (photo credit: Wetlands Watch)

Bailey Carrington, a Level 1 CBLP, is the agriculture instructor at Churchland, where she’s taught horticulture science and greenhouse plant production and management since 2020. Students can elect to take her class or are placed into it by their guidance counselors. For the CBLP-A certificate, students are exposed to a mix of indoor and outdoor instruction, incorporating videos, quizzes, hands-on activities, nature walks and field trips over the course of about two weeks. Topics include the value of native plants versus invasive plants in developing native habitat and stemming pollution runoff, the types of materials used to create rain gardens and bio retention ponds that help filter stormwater, and soil health. There’s no exam. Students are awarded certificates based on quizzes and participation during field day activities, like a recent visit with the landscaping and maintenance crew at Old Dominion University.

“This is a good way to expose the students to the career pathway,” Scott said. “For those who want to continue, we give them the next level, and for those who don’t, they get to hop off this pathway and then jump onto another, that’s pretty much how it works.”

The program also broadens the horizons for non-college bound students, helping them develop skills and gain credentials to build upon.

Students visit Old Dominion University (photo credit: Wetlands Watch)

The landscape industry has a high turnover rate, and the CBLP-A program aims to fill in the gaps, connecting young and interested talent to eager employers. Latrice Scott, a career and technical education program specialist for Portsmouth Public Schools, said the district recognized there were job opportunities in horticulture and agriculture, and the CBLP-A fit nicely into its curriculum. Students who earn their associate level certificate are eligible for the next professional level of CBLP certifications and will be introduced to local employers and entry level job possibilities.

In addition to helping subsidize CBLP-A classes, Wetlands Watch uses RISE funding to offer partial scholarships toward additional CBLP training and workshops, and to pay qualified people to lead the courses.

Rachel Griffith is the landscape coordinator at ODU, where she’s worked for more than seven years. She has an associate degree in landscape design and management and ran a landscape design business before starting at ODU. She is also CBLP Level 2 certified. The training changed the way she approached landscape use, development and rain gardens, she said, and she’s eager to pass along that knowledge to others, including another generation of landscape professionals.

“I think the program’s amazing,” she said. “Out of all the certifications that are available out there in the wild, wild world of horticulture, this is the only one that’s ever resonated with me.”

Griffith said CBLP participants learn what the Bay really needs and how our everyday actions impact its health, as well as the health of its tributaries. It fosters a community of professionals who are also environmental stewards, sharing their knowledge with clients for the betterment of local habitat and waterways.

Certification is offered in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Washington, D.C. More than 800 people have attained their level 1 certification and another 110 have achieved the more advanced level 2 designation. An online database helps connect potential clients and collaborators with these qualified professionals. Five of Griffith’s fellow ODU staff members have completed or are working their way through the professional-level program, she added.

Students visit Old Dominion University (photo credit: Wetlands Watch)

Griffith said CBLP-A students get a glimpse into the world of conservation and an opportunity to be part of a working, ecologically aware community that supports one another. Whether the young apprentices start doing grounds maintenance or gardening, the experience is bound to influence how they’ll design or see the world.

“So, if they end up in some sort of career in the green industry, understanding what’s happening on the ground level, is very important.”

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