The Legacy of Dr. John Santos: One Million Students Impacted
Dr. John Santos’ passion for experiential learning, sparked at NECC, led to the creation of a unique wilderness education program.
This article originally appeared in the fall 2023 edition of alumnecc, NECC’s bi-annual magazine for alumni and friends.
Each year, thousands of grade school children throughout New England pack their bags, board big yellow buses, and head off to the wilderness. They’re trading their school classrooms for Nature’s Classroom. When they return, parents say they seem to walk a little taller, with a newfound sense of independence.
Nature’s Classroom is a beloved experiential learning program founded by Northern Essex Community College alumnus, the late Dr. John Santos ’68. His idea was simple: give students an opportunity to learn outside of a traditional classroom setting. By utilizing summer camps in the off-season, he and a team of wilderness educators could host schools for up to five days of learning through nature. Along the way, students would build a sense of community, develop trust in each other, and bring a spirit of cooperation back to their home life.
It’s the kind of program Dr. Santos wished he had growing up. As a self-described late bloomer, he struggled through classes in Billerica Public Schools.
“He joked that he joined the military senior year because he was about to fail out,” remembers son John “Jay” Santos. “He didn’t do well in high school; it wasn’t the way he learned and thrived.”
Dr. Santos earned his GED while serving in the military during the Vietnam War. Once back home, he decided to give education another try. He enrolled in Northern Essex Community College and discovered there was much more to learning than what happened inside the classroom.
“He started to enjoy more self-directed learning, getting to pick and choose what he studied. It was as much about the classroom-based lessons as it was the conversations in the hallways and the connections with professors,” says Jay Santos.
He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from Amherst College, a master’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a Ph.D. in Education from Boston College. Dr. Santos taught elementary school for two years before deciding to pursue his passion for experiential learning. He opened the first Nature’s Classroom location in Potters Place, New Hampshire in 1973. A few years later, he moved his young family to Charlton, Massachusetts, which serves as the base of operations for Nature’s Classroom to this day. The program grew to operate in more than a dozen locations throughout New England and New York and has now served more than a million students.
“I always remember, at the beginning of each school year, they’d bring all the educators from all the sites to Charlton. Before the official site opened there, it was my house. So, there would be 60 to 70 counselors in the backyard.”
Jay Santos says his father always credited those educators for bringing his idea to life through nature and creating a one-of-a-kind community along the way. Dr. John Santos passed away this summer, not long after celebrating the 50th anniversary of Nature’s Classroom.
“At the funeral, one thing that stood out was the community of educators and how much that community meant to them. People started their careers there; they met their partners. At one point, we counted, and we got up to 15 to 20 Nature’s Classroom babies.”
Continuing the Legacy
Jay Santos and his brother Kenneth “Kip” Santos currently serve on the board of directors of Nature’s Classroom. They look forward to continuing to build on their father’s legacy. That includes helping students at Northern Essex. Their father donated his time and supported many initiatives at the college through the years. In 2010, he established The Dr. John G. Santos Environmental Education Scholarship Fund. Each year, the scholarship is awarded to students enrolled in one of NECC’s Natural Science Associate Degree programs.
“He’s always wanted to support the causes that meant a lot to him,” says Jay of his father’s philanthropy. “Northern Essex gave him that opportunity to do something with his life that I don’t think he ever envisioned growing up. I’m glad he was able to leave the legacy to Northern Essex students.”
You can read the full issue of alumnecc, and back editions, by visiting the website.