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Updated: March 18, 2024 / 2024 Business Leaders of the Year

Business Leaders: The Ecology School’s Drew Dumsch transforms environmental learning

Photo /Tim Greenway Drew Dumsch says the move to River Bend Farm allowed the Ecology School to expand enrollment and programs, but also its reach, from regional to national and international.

The Ecology School, a nonprofit environmental living and learning center for children and adults founded by Drew Dumsch in 1998, has been in transformation mode.

For 19 years, the school operated in the spring and fall seasons at a leased property in Saco. In 2017, the school bought and moved to the 105-acre River Bend Farm in Saco.

The school raised $14.1 million to build a 9,000-square-foot dormitory and 7,000-square-foot dining commons to “Living Building Challenge” specifications — the first Maine location to aim for that certification, which exceeds ratings of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and the Passive House Institute.

Last year, the school added 208 acres to support staff housing and expanded programs, including school programs, teacher institutes, retreats, conferences and summer camps. This year, it partnered with local schools to provide professional development centered on climate change education.

Mainebiz: What have these transformations meant for operations?

Drew Dumsch: The evolution between December 1998 to now was very deliberate. Coming to River Bend Farm and having this amazing live-and-learn campus really sped things up.

MB: What’s the status of your facilities projects?

DD: We’re still growing and evolving. We have a 1794 farmhouse, an 1840s barn and the new dining commons and commercial kitchen and dorm. A year after we opened, we added four yurts as indoor classrooms and meeting spaces. Our campus is solar powered.

But given the outdoor schoolwork we’re doing, we need more beds. So we added two more yurts that allow us to bring in 30 more students. That’s a sign of the growth that continues to happen.

MB: What’s your enrollment?

DD: We average 7,000 student- and adult-program participants.

Thanks to moving to River Bend Farm, having our own site and being open year-round, we have over 5,000 kids doing outdoor school programming and our teacher institutes bring classroom teachers from all over the country. Our reach has expanded from regional to national and international.

MB: How goes the Living Building Challenge?

DD: The challenge requires buildings to run for a full year (post-COVID) to generate metrics such as energy use, energy creation, air quality and water use. That was 2023. We’re in the certification process now. Our hope is to be certified by the end of 2024.

MB: Has the challenge raised the school’s profile?

DD: Definitely. The past two summers, we hosted a national regenerative real estate conference through [West Coast regenerative real estate company] Latitude, which heard about our living building challenge project and wanted to convene their gathering in a place that walks the talk. And our project won one a top award from AIA Maine and we hosted their gathering along with many other groups last year.

Last May I presented at the International Living Future Institute’s conference about how environmental living and learning centers can model these principles. I‘ve been working with Ontario nonprofit, to create the Leading Beyond Green International Leadership Institute focused on regenerative learning and practice.

MB: Any future plans?

DD: We’ll be working on a sustainability campaign to build both operations and program endowments. And we’ll be growing our AgroEcology for Resilient Communities project.

MB: How would you characterize the school’s focus?

DD: I call it the Four E’s of Sustainability — environment, education, economy and equity.

That intersection defines our mission. You can’t leave any out. Climate change is the result of building economies that don’t pay attention to the environment. Some conservation work in past decades didn’t consider equity. Our ability to consider these Four E’s is important for how we can use our programs and our campus for broader public engagement and education.

We’re living in such a complex time. I’m really excited about what the Ecology School’s programs can do to help people make sense of the complexity by being curious — learning about nature, the environment, conservation, good farming practices, sitting down to good meals, being compassionate.

Curiosity fuels us at River Bend Farm. The result of that curiosity and compassion is joyful and memorable learning experiences.

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