Schools all over the country are developing innovative and exciting ways to implement the Eco-Schools USA program. Here you can read case studies highlighting what existing Eco-Schools are doing to green their school—on the inside, outside, and throughout the curriculum!
When Jeff Anderson requested bike racks at his children’s school in the fall of 2008, he had no idea this simple request would lead to him playing a key role in supporting the Safe Routes to Schools initiative in Fairfax County Public Schools (Virginia).
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On any given day at Edward Pine Middle School in Reno, Nevada, you can find students out in the school garden: building raised bed boxes, weeding, filling them with compost or selling produce they grew to neighbors in their community.
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The New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE), the largest school district in the nation, has assigned volunteer “Sustainability Coordinators” in each of its 1,700 schools. Their mission? To reduce waste, increase recycling and save energy. Teachers and custodians are generally appointed for the job by their principals. In rare cases, green parents, already active in their children’s schools, have asked for the job. Jennifer Prescott is one such parent—mom to a 6th grader at PS 333/Manhattan School for Children (MSC), a progressive K-8 public school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Prescott signed MSC up as an Eco-School this past December and plans to get the Student Council Green Team to implement the program and start applying for awards. “I like that the Eco-Schools program requires student leadership,” says Prescott. “The awards will help MSC get recognition for all of its greening initiatives and will hopefully inspire other schools,” she says.
MSC has a number of model green initiatives, thanks in large part to Prescott’s efforts. She became MSC’s Sustainability Coordinator in 2010. Her personal mission is to teach children how to become responsible environmental stewards. Passionate about environmental education, she firmly believes that children need to understand why it’s important to take care of the Earth. “It’s really about raising students’ awareness about their role in protecting the environment rather than just telling them what to do,” Prescott explains. “We have a whole generation of adults that have been told to recycle for the last 20 years and they still don’t do it because they haven’t internalized the why and understood why it’s important,” says Prescott, who describes her frustration at finding adult takeout containers in a first grade classroom’s paper recycling bins. One of the first things Prescott did as Sustainability Coordinator was to make sure that each classroom and hallway had the requisite paper recycling and bottle bins, and that these were always placed next to trash bins to encourage proper source separation.
Getting to zero waste has been Prescott’s goal. Because K-3 students bring lunch from home and eat in the classroom, she goes into individual classrooms to talk to kids about recycling and how to pack a waste-free lunch. “Along with making kids aware of the waste they’re generating, we also want them to know where their waste is going,” she says. She makes the connection between Ziploc bags, overburdened landfills, and plastic pollution in the oceans. She then shows children what a waste-free lunchbox looks like. Her kit includes a stainless steel water bottle, reusable sandwich bags, lidded stainless steel containers, thermal food jars, and bamboo utensils, among other things: all items that Prescott makes available to families through MSC’s Eco-Store.
Prescott also started a Terracycle program to upcycle items that can’t be recycled. “We’re collecting items most commonly generated at school, not only during lunch but from classrooms in general: glue/glue sticks, scotch tape dispensers, used writing instruments, granola and energy bar wrappers, yogurt containers, and chip bags,” she says. Prescott has enlisted “green class parents” to help with Terracycling during lunchtime. Items are brought to a collection tower on the 3rd floor and a box is shipped to Terracycle weekly. Prescott also collects hard plastic caps, which she sends to Aveda, and plastic bags and #5 plastics, which she brings to Whole Foods for recycling.In early 2012, an industrial cafeteria composting program—which Prescott helped to found—was launched. It diverts 160 pounds of food waste from landfill daily in Prescott’s campus building, which includes two other middle schools—MS 256 and MS 258. Prescott has talked to the building’s 1,100 students and trained the children, in all three schools, on proper source separation procedures in the cafeteria. “I wanted them to understand why they were composting in the cafeteria all of a sudden, and make sure the program succeeded,” she said. Prescott has also gone to other neighborhood schools to talk to children about composting.
But Prescott hasn’t stopped at waste. Using her background as a green design consultant, she has also focused on healthy environments, giving indoor air quality presentations to grades K-8 during their science periods. “I talk to them about how indoor air can be more polluted than outdoor air, the importance of ventilation, eliminating toxins, and how certain house plants can do for indoor air what trees do for outdoor air,” she says. In Prescott’s daughter’s 6th grade class, the children have talked about fossil fuel extraction and its ramifications. “Our kids know that a plastic bottle is a petroleum product, and just because there’s a recycling solution for that bottle, doesn’t mean they should buy it,” she says.Thanks to Prescott, environmental stewardship has become second nature to MSC students. And thanks to fellow parents Sidsel Robards, Manuela Zamora and Nancy Easton, and a partnership with the non-profit NY Sun Works, environmental principles are now fully integrated into MSC’s curriculum. In 2010 MSC opened a 1,400-square-foot net-zero-energy hydroponic greenhouse/environmental science lab, nourished by solar energy and rainwater, which can produce up to 8,000 pounds of vegetables each year. Science teacher Shakira Castronovo leads classes there using Sun Works’ curriculum titled “A World of Systems: Connecting Science, Technology and Social Studies to Foster Sustainability,” which promotes critical thinking and problem solving. K-5th grade students visit the greenhouse weekly to work on projects using rainwater catchment tanks, hydroponic growing systems, a weather station, an energy corner, worm composting, an aquaponic fish farm and an integrated pest management corner. The 7th and 8th graders study hydroponic farming. Students not only meet the mandated New York State science standards, but address global environmental issues like climate change, water shortage, contamination, food production, population, energy, health and nutrition. At the end of the 2011-2012 school year, MSC held its first TEDxYouth Conference; 5th to 8th graders shared their ideas about how to find long-term solutions to today’s environmental problems.
Prescott—a former Broadway actress—emceed the event. When asked if there is anything she still wants to accomplish at MSC, Prescott replies, “I won’t be there forever. In 2013 I want to get a handful of motivated 5th and 6th graders, and teachers, to take over the green programs. You really need to have students who care about these issues managing them for the long-term, and passing on their knowledge and passion to the next set of young leaders,” she says. The NYC Eco-Schools team is excited to follow MSC’s progress towards achieving Bronze, Silver and Green Flag awards. They are already well on their way. Schools can register to become Eco-Schools online and keep track of their progress towards certification on Eco-Schools USA's new dashboard.
Emily A. Fano is NYC Outreach Manager for Eco-Schools USA, FanoE@nwf.org.
At Ben Franklin Elementary School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, students are learning how to be leaders, engaged community members and true stewards of the environment. Last year the school launched the Ben Franklin EPA program, appointing students on a rotating basis to act as junior EPA representatives for their grade by meeting with administrators and teachers monthly to determine school greening activities. These representatives actively participate in the plan-making process, voice concerns of their fellow classmates, and communicate with peers about actions they can take to help the school accomplish its goals.
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The Eco-Schools process is most effective when it’s a team effort with students at the center. That is certainly true at Lanier Middle School in Fairfax, Virginia. Lanier earned a Green Flag award in June 2011, just the third school in the country to do so. The students, with lots of encouragement from science teacher Faiza Alam and other staff, have put their energy wholeheartedly into a variety of rewarding projects.
Alam explained that it all started with a requirement for seventh graders to complete environmental service hours each quarter. At first, the teachers provided students with a list of suggested actions they could take at home. But soon they realized that the school, too, was an ideal place to make changes to benefit the environment, and that the Eco-Schools program could help guide their activities. In two years, Lanier students have amassed an impressive 3000 hours of service. Alam formed an after-school Environmental Service Learning Club which initially met once weekly and now meets twice—and, according to Alam, students would like it to be even more frequent. “The best part is the kids love it,” she says.Lanier’s recently-renovated school building includes an enclosed courtyard that posed maintenance problems, as mowing equipment had to be brought through the building and mowing had to be done on weekends. One of the first projects that Lanier tackled was to turn the courtyard into an outdoor “living classroom.” They replaced the turf grass with 75 species of native plants, mulched heavily to eliminate the use of chemicals, and constructed a vernal pool. This year, they added a vegetable garden. The administration and school board were fully supportive of the project, because not only did it offer great opportunities for hands-on learning, it also meant financial savings with students and staff taking over the maintenance of this problematic area. “We connected one dot to another. It just all worked,” explained principal Scott Poole.
The school has also taken on energy conservation and waste reduction initiatives. Students used lux meters to measure the lighting levels in classrooms and found that the lights were actually brighter than necessary. They came up with a plan to remove one of the four bulbs in each light fixture, which would reduce lighting to the recommended level and at the same time cut the school’s electricity costs by around 20 percent. Meanwhile, a recycling club has found ways to enhance recycling at the school. Upcoming projects include thermal imaging to detect energy leaks in the building envelope, constructing a bioretention area to absorb stormwater in the parking lot, and a collaborative cell phone recycling drive with student volunteers from nearby George Mason University.Fairfax is a diverse and densely populated city near Washington, D.C., and Alam notes that many of the students have never before experienced hands-on outdoor activities such as the ones to which Lanier’s environmental projects are exposing them. They recently conducted a biodiversity survey in a wetland area adjacent to the school, and at first, she says, students were squeamish, not wanting to get into the mud. But before long they were utterly engaged, and several students spent the entire day outside, after begging their other teachers to let them continue the work. For certain students, the opportunity for outdoor learning has been transformational, motivating them to greatly improve their classroom performance. Enthusiastic students bring their parents and grandparents back for family work days. “It’s really a life experience for them,” Alam says.
Lanier’s teachers have connected the environmental projects to the curriculum in many meaningful ways. The courtyard project and biodiversity study have become a central focus for seventh grade life science, while an eighth grade unit on electricity ties in with the energy conservation activities. In art classes, students have created art for the courtyard and worked to design the school’s eco-code. They have also developed their technological skills through video documenting of the projects.Lanier’s success can certainly be attributed in part to the many people and groups they’ve involved in the process. Their Eco-Action team includes students, teachers, parents, administrators, and building staff. The school board has provided funding, the PTA ordered reusable water bottles and bags to help reduce plastic waste, and several local environmental organizations and the City of Fairfax have been involved as well. Alam emphasizes the importance of getting administrative support for projects right away—it will help you accomplish much more. Beyond that, she suggests starting small. For example, create a single garden with a few students. “Use resources that are available to you. Begin by just getting the kids outside, beyond the classroom walls.” She finds that this generates interest from the students, sparks connections to every subject area, and makes teaching much more powerful and effective. On that foundation, Lanier has built a very strong and effective program!
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