How a Wyoming Principal Found Place-Based Education

Here at Teton Science Schools it’s fair to say that we see a lot of students, teachers, principals and even some superintendents throughout the year. For many of them, the time spent on our campuses and out in wild places is transformative — it’s the first time they step foot in a national park, the first time they learn outside and the first time they experience the power of place-based education. For a few of them, it’s their experience that motivates them to make a change back home within their own schools. That was the experience that Dave Rangitsch had over his first few visits, first as a teacher and then as a principal, with his students and teachers at Saratoga Elementary. 

We sat down with Dave to hear more about his experience discovering place-based education and how, after a few visits with us, he decided the approach was something that needed to be incorporated every day of the school year, not just for one week.

TSS: Where did you grow up?

Dave: I am a Wyoming native and grew up in Riverton, Wyoming. I graduated from Casper College with an Associate of Science degree and finished my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at the University of Wyoming.

TSS: What inspired you to pursue a career in education? 

Dave: I have always enjoyed being around kids of all ages and many say I’m a kid at heart. I coached little league baseball, WMCA basketball and Pee Wee football during my high school and college years. 

My professional career began in Saratoga, WY as a third grade teacher. After three years, I moved to a fifth grade classroom and taught there for eleven years. In 1995 I received my Master’s in Administration and began my principalship, where I spent 22 wonderful years.

TSS: Who would you say is your mentor or role model in education?

Dave: I have two role models in education. First was my high school science teacher/football coach, Mr. Dennis Smitt. He had a great rapport with students — he made us feel valuable, he  held us to high standards — all while showing us that learning can be fun in the classroom, as well as on the field. He created long-lasting relationships with many of his students, including me.   

My second is Pat Laird. She taught second grade at Saratoga Elementary for 22 years of my time there. She was the most caring, loving teacher and person I have ever known in education.  Her devotion to students was evident in everything she did. Both my children had her as a teacher and they adored her. She could make each student feel special and even wrote personal hand-written letters to each student on a weekly basis showing her care about their feelings and lives outside of the classroom. 

TSS: How did you first hear about Teton Science Schools (TSS)?

Dave: I first heard about TSS as a fifth grade teacher. Our eighth graders attended the week-long program at the Kelly Campus and I chaperoned many of those trips.

TSS: After hearing about TSS, how did your school get involved?

Dave: While on one of our trips, a field instructor told me that Teton Science Schools had other opportunities for kids of all ages. The summer program for younger students sounded like a great opportunity for elementary students. 

As principal, I and several interested teachers attended the place-based education teacher workshop at the Murie Ranch. After attending, we came back excited to implement place-based education in our school and did so with great success. Over the course of 22 years, I spearheaded the requirement that all teachers in my building attend the workshops put on by the Teacher Learning Center. I had push-back from some, but all ended up returning from the workshops inspired by how enriching and valuable place-based education can be to students’ learning.  

TSS: How did you implement place-based education back in Saratoga?

Dave: I implemented place-based education at Saratoga Elementary by first having all of our classroom teachers attend the place-based education workshop series put on by the Teacher Learning Center. From that experience, our team cohesively had a working understanding of the approach and the tools to get us started. We then had weekly grade level meetings to plan out place-based activities and projects. 

TSS: What were your biggest challenges in moving towards a place-based curriculum? 

Dave: The biggest challenges we had to address were time along with making sure the place-based curriculum met the state standards and outcomes. 

TSS: Why did you feel it was important to implement place-based education at your school?

Dave: I believe that place-based education is very important for many reasons. First and foremost is that the students have agency in what they are learning and develop skills that are vital to everyday life. Giving our students the opportunity to develop teamwork skills, build strong communication skills and take ownership in their own community is a powerful experience to give them early on in their learning.

TSS: What were the three biggest benefits of incorporating place-based education in your school?

Dave:  One of the biggest benefits was building a community support system that enriched our student work — various activities involved both community resources and people. For example, we had students and teachers working alongside Trout Unlimited and Game and Fish to do a lesson on macroinvertebrates, water flow and bank erosion. This community partnership allowed 26 of our students to float down the Platte River with local guides and use their newfound skills along the way. 

Another benefit was seeing the non-traditional student excel in a non-traditional classroom setting. This type of hands-on learning can be so beneficial to their learning and their self-esteem.  

Last but not least was witnessing students take pride and ownership in the work they were doing in their community.  For example, we planted trees at Veterans Island and I overheard a student tell another student, “Hey! Don’t run over that tree with your bike. I planted it.” That was pretty neat!

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