At our 2019 Student Showcase this past April, we recognized the commitment and passion of Jessica Dennen by awarding her the Watershed Educator of the Year. This year we were particularly struck by Ms. Dennen’s consistent enthusiasm for her students, for her curriculum, and for our Petaluma Watershed. We are honored to have her participate in the Watershed Classroom.
Ms. Jessica Dennen, who has taught in Petaluma for 15 years, is one of four full time teachers at Carpe Diem and Sonoma Mtn. High School. These two magnet schools offer an alternative program for students struggling in the traditional setting. Much of the success of the schools and students can be directly connected to the close relationships between the teachers and students, a bond strengthened by a unique daily schedule. Students receive instruction from only two teachers each day; the educators are responsible for providing the complete core program in English, History, Math, and Science. Ms. Dennen is responsible for teaching both Science and Art, and is the online coordinator as well.
In 2017, Jessica Dennen was nominated for the Sonoma County Teacher of the Year Award. Carpe Diem and Sonoma Mountain principal Gregory Stevenson described Ms. Dennen as "a teacher that both recognizes and embraces the gaps in achievement of her students, and works extremely hard to differentiate instruction, cater to individual needs, and make every student feel important while moving them forward academically and in life.”
This ability to individualize curriculum and modify her instruction to best suit her students, has also been observed by Watershed Classroom staff. Stewardship Coordinator Lee Farese has had the privilege of watching Jessica with her students during field trips to Steamer Landing Park.
“I have been consistently grateful to be able to see her dedication to meeting her students where they are in all respects. There's a steadiness and a very real care that leaves an impression,” says Lee.
This is a sentiment shared by her students when describing their experiences in Jessica Dennen’s classroom. Speaking on behalf of her students, Principal Stevenson reported their gratitude for the “great diversity of classroom activities she provides for them, and an appreciation for her creativity and the wholeheartedness with which she teaches.”
This wholeheartedness is perhaps what is most striking about Ms. Jessica Dennen. The sincere care for her students comes with a devotion that does not end when the bell rings for dismissal. Watching her at Steamer Landing, Lee was struck by “her commitment to finding opportunities for her students, and weaving classroom learning into a bigger picture of service.”
One such opportunity that she introduced to her students is the PG&E Solar Suitcase competition, a program introduced in 2017 to encourage students to think and act locally and globally. PG&E provided materials to students to build portable solar power generators, which were then donated to people living in countries without electricity. Additionally, students were tasked with creating and implementing a local environmental project. Focusing on the restoration of Steamer Landing, roughly 60 students began planting native trees and shrubs to promote a healthier and more inviting habitat for the wild animals in our watershed.
Their hard work was recognized and rewarded when Ms. Dennen and her students were honored as the winners of PG&E Solar Suitcase competition. She and two students were invited to deliver the solar panel suitcases to villages in the jungles of Ecuador over a 12-day excursion in March of 2018.
Their commitment to the restoration of Steamer Landing Park did not end with the conclusion of the competition. The students have continued to be remarkable stewards for our watershed as they work to improve the peninsula by restoring the environment and finding ways to promote a healthier habitat for wildlife. This year they expanded upon their restoration project by building and installing blue bird boxes throughout the park.
The Watershed Classroom and Friends of the Petaluma River feel incredibly fortunate to partner with Jessica Dennen. Not only because of her efforts to revitalize Steamer Landing Park, but because we have had the enormous privilege of watching her with her students. She is clearly as committed to her students’ success as she is to improving our local environment.
Jessica, while engaging with your students you continue to teach us how to build respectful relationships and foster curiosity, excitement, and pride; we are incredibly thankful for your many lessons.