In Fall 2011 Thomas Starr King Middle School in Los Angeles, CA became an environmental studies magnet school. This special program (which now has a waitlist) has turned the school into a true laboratory for environmental education. Here are a few examples of what makes this magnet school special:
Involvement in Eco-Schools USA
Kim Jones, a teacher at the school, leads the school’s Eco-Action Team. She signed her school up to participate in the Eco-Schools USA program because the tenets of the program are exactly what the school hoped to incorporate into their environmental magnet. This spring Kim’s students will be tackling three of the Eco-Schools pathways: School Grounds, Green Hour and Consumption and Waste. In the future the school will be expanding its garden thanks to a donation passed along to the school by the National Wildlife Federation. “We want to guide our students to be environmental activists starting with our school site”, says Kim. “We want them to understand, and promote awareness, of how one person’s actions can make a difference in protecting the planet”.
A visit from Nickelodeon
Recently Kim and her students were honored with a visit from the cast of Victorious! from Nickelodeon (Matt Bennett, Ariana Grande, Elizabeth Gillies, Avan Jogia, Daniella Monet and Leon Thomas III). The young stars rolled up their sleeves to help sixth graders paint, mulch and plant in the school's organic garden.
"It was really fun helping out. I was impressed by all of the kids, their dedication and enthusiasm." said Leon Thomas III "The best part of the day is knowing that the garden and the efforts to green the school are ongoing."
Rona Zollinger believes in the transformative power of education. She started her teaching career in a traditional classroom setting. After returning to school to think differently about what education could and should be, created the Environmental Studies Academy in 2003. It was a single classroom and she was the only teacher in this “school within a school” in Martinez, an industrial city in California’s San Francisco Bay area. The program was small, but it was connected to a large network of community partners that supported the school’s hands-on, project-based, environmentally-focused approach.Three years ago, the program doubled in size and now serves 48 students in grades 9-12. Its name has also changed to New Leaf: A Sustainable Learning Collaborative. The new name reflects that the school’s focus is not solely on science and the environment. Along with the traditional academics required to receive a high school diploma, the holistic curriculum also addresses students’ emotional and physical development. For example, students do yoga weekly and learn techniques for understanding their emotions and managing stress. All activities are conducted through the lens of sustainability and encourage students to develop an ecological view of the world.
Students in the program are very diverse. Some were simply bored in a traditional high school setting. Others were falling behind and in danger of dropping out of school, some dealing with probation, homelessness, and other challenges. They come to New Leaf with a wide variety of life experiences, and the small size and collaborative nature of the program require teamwork among peers who wouldn’t have associated with each other in a mainstream high school. All students attend by choice.Rona explains, “Throughout the years, the program has grown in scope and impact in the community. Now we have two teachers and over 50 community partners.” These community partners are essential. Rona has found that reciprocity is the key to success: The partner organizations must get as much out of the relationships as the students do. It works because the partners get help accomplishing their goals, while students have an opportunity to participate in meaningful work and make a difference in their community. Not only do students satisfy academic requirements, they also develop life skills and even sample potential career paths. The partners, meanwhile, become invested in the students’ progress and work to help them succeed.
Currently, the school is involved in six community service projects focused on environmental and health topics, and five environmental career-focused internships (in which students work directly with professionals). The longest running projects are:
Other projects, past and present, include:
The program evolves organically as new relationships are formed and students delve into new projects and internships. Rona says her job has become more about networking and relationship-building than anything else. She involves the students in the process, and this becomes part of the curriculum. “I always have students with me in meetings with partners,” she explains. She finds that education succeeds best when the focus shifts away from creating reproducible curriculum and toward creating relationships—with people, with the land, and with each student as a human being. Keeping this goal in mind, lessons are co-created by both teacher and students. Rona guides them through the process, asking first, “What do you want to learn?” and then “Who in the community can help us learn this?” and “How do we meet education requirements as we do it?”
Rona completed a three-year case study of “Transformative Education in Action” as part of her Ph.D. dissertation. She identified ten conditions that are essential to the transformative nature of education, which has given her a framework with which she can evaluate current and future projects as the program evolves year by year. She also looked at measures of academic success, such as attendance and test scores, and found that “everything improved dramatically.”
How does this non-traditional approach affect students? Sophia, a senior, cites the Peer Mentoring Project as a particularly memorable part of her experience. Twice a month, she and other New Leaf students teach elementary students about recycling, watersheds, gardening, composting, native and invasive species, and other aspects of environmental literacy. She explains that she struggled with writing when she first came to New Leaf, and this project challenged her as she worked to create lesson plans. Over time, she’s developed both her skills and her confidence, and she says, “Now I’m helping other students write lesson plans, something I never thought I’d be doing!” She credits the project with helping her develop as a person, recognizing her own strengths and weaknesses, as well as opening her eyes to all that teachers put into their work. Seeing the young students grow “makes my heart happy,” she says, and she is considering teaching as a career.Cheyanna, another senior, also values the relationships formed in the mentoring program. “The fifth graders have seen us throughout their elementary school career,” she says, and both groups of students have learned from each other. An internship with the National Park Service has her working on a phenology monitoring project, noting the “science of the seasons” twice weekly at Mount Wanda and the John Muir stewardship site. She thinks she might like to get a job with the Park Service down the road. Next year, though, she plans to take college classes and work as a graduate intern at this school that has been so influential in her life.
Cristobal attests that this school helps students excel in a way unlike any other school he’s attended. It’s all about the experiences, he says. They do science and math outside, through hands-on projects, in addition to using textbooks as resources. And the students help each other—that’s part of the school’s mission. He’s been involved in watershed restoration work, learning about the value of native plants and their importance for wildlife from a professional biologist, and then working under his direction on a creek restoration project. They are now starting a similar project on campus, and the students—feeling confident in their new knowledge—are taking the lead. Cristobal is also participating in an internship on green media that has him working on outreach activities, blogging, and writing articles for a community newsletter. “It’s helped me develop my writing skills,” he says, and he’s found that he greatly enjoys journalism. “It’s now a career I’m pursuing.”
Currently holding an Eco-Schools USA Silver Award, New Leaf is aspiring to the Green Flag. Learn more about their unique program and find more student perspectives.
Goddard, Kansas is growing fast and just opened a second high school. Denise Scribner, a science teacher, was transferred to the new school this fall “because,” she explained, “I had a reputation for being a go-getter who could rally others.” She certainly is! Denise is instrumental in the long list of accomplishments that have greened Goddard’s first high school, and has plans that are just as big for the new facility.
Thirteen years ago, the Goddard High School science faculty team, led by Marylee Ramsay, began working with ecology students to restore an area of the school’s grounds with native prairie grasses. Denise began working four years ago to renovate the school’s Outdoor Wildlife Learning Site (OWLS), taking on the installation of a wind-powered pond aeration system to restore water quality in the site’s pond. Today, the projects provide real-world applications of environmental concepts outside the classroom. Denise regularly involves students from her ecology classes. Other teachers from a variety of disciplines also make use of the area, and younger students benefit from it as well.The school grounds now include demonstration gardens to teach about the culturally significant native plants of Kansas, a certified Monarch Way Station that provides food and habitat for migrating monarch butterflies, a 20-station nature trail highlighting flora and fauna as well as local environmental issues, and outdoor classroom space. The project garnered the school a prestigious President's Environmental Youth Award for Region 7 in 2011.
The site provides opportunities for a variety of interdisciplinary uses. Denise has had her ecology students carry out experiments on soil quality and pH, conduct an annual controlled burn to eliminate invasive plants (while experiencing the carbon cycle in action), collect and plant wildflower and grass seeds, create stations and a trail guide for use on the public nature trail, and build Leopold benches (named for Aldo Leopold, father of wildlife management). Art students developed ceramic sculptures of native grasslands animals for display along the nature trail. A math class calculated the amount of soil required to fill planting boxes and learned about triangulation as part of a bat box installation. Language arts classes utilize the site for inspiration when writing poetry, and sometimes teachers simply carry a sofa out onto the lawn to provide a comfortable place for reading and writing, having found that students focus better outdoors. The students’ environmental activities are regularly featured in the school’s audio and video announcements. Students from the nearby elementary and middle schools also visit the site as an extension of their classroom science activities. Denise explains that involving many students in the projects instills pride and prevents vandalism.Of course, funding was necessary to undertake many pieces of the project. Goddard sought out grants that, bit by bit, helped the school accomplish its goals. These included Lowe's Toolbox for Education, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism’s OWLS grant, and the Credit Union of America’s TGIF classroom grant. When students’ water quality tests revealed that the school pond lacked oxygen, they determined that a windmill-powered aeration system would be the most environmentally beneficial solution. Through a Kansas Green Schools program grant, they were able to install one. They put up an interpretive sign, and farmers and ranchers from their community are taking note. Several have already installed similar systems for their ponds.
Denise’s students don’t just learn outdoors—they learn to teach there, too! An annual event called “Celebrate the Earth” involves ecology and biology students in facilitating activities for 600 fourth and fifth graders from the Goddard School District. Denise describes the event as “the ultimate semester project.” With demonstrations, displays, hands-on labs, and games that teach environmental and biological concepts, the day of activities challenges and inspires the high school students. They are motivated to understand the information so that they can teach it well, and their confidence blossoms as the younger students look up to them. The students find preparing for the event to be a constructive use of their time—while Denise appreciates that it reinforces concepts already covered in class.A core group of students works the event all day, serving as “green guides” for the visiting groups or as lead facilitators of some of the activities. Then rotating shifts of other students arrive to facilitate activities during their normal class periods—resulting in enough work to involve 130 students in the successful event. Students from the art and drama department get in on the act, too, writing and producing a one-act play to perform for the children. Organizations from the community are also invited to participate by bringing their own interactive booths.
This is a powerful legacy for Denise to leave behind as she establishes a new routine at the just-opened Eisenhower High School across town. Undaunted, she is leaping straight into another project: a second Outdoor Wildlife Learning Site to reestablish native habitat on the new campus. She, her colleagues, and their students will foster partnerships to create an atmosphere of environmental awareness throughout the community. Like the site at Goddard High School, this one will include native prairie demonstration gardens, wildlife habitat, a pond with a floating dock for aquatic studies, a nature trail, and abundant opportunities for hands-on, outdoor learning experiences.
The site will be maintained by ecology and biology student through class projects and will be open to the adjacent elementary and middle schools, as well as to the public. To facilitate interdisciplinary use, students are working with the Green Team of Westar Energy (the local energy provider) to construct a shaded outdoor classroom using recycled wood.Environmental activities for the high school students of Goddard don’t end with the outdoor learning sites, either. Denise takes a team to compete in the Kansas Eco-Meet each year. Students are integral in the district’s recycling program, collecting materials from the elementary and middle schools as well as the high schools and district offices, and preparing demonstrations to teach the younger students what they can recycle. Just two weeks into the school year, Denise reports that her ecology students are all bringing reusable water bottles to class instead of disposables after they began studying the waste stream.
Participating in Eco-Schools USA provides Goddard’s high schools with valuable national recognition for their work. They also greatly appreciate the benefits that come from their participation in the Kansas Green Schools Network. This long-established and successful program offers recognition, professional development opportunities, grant funding, and networking opportunities for participants to share their successes. Recognizing the tremendous value of state-based programs such as this one, Eco-Schools USA is working with Kansas to develop a co-certification option in which Kansas-certified schools with an outdoor habitat area can enter Eco-Schools USA at the silver level. Denise explains that, when the requirements are complementary, it makes sense to participate in both programs. With limited funding and time, it’s helpful to make use of all the resources available and take advantage of opportunities to showcase what is going right. Thanks to the Goddard School District for sharing the many things going right in your schools!
At Emily Dickinson Elementary and Explorer Community School in Redmond, Washington, April brings “Wetlands Week.” Every K-6th grade class spends an hour outside in the schools’ wetland ecosystem. Students work with Laura Kleppe, a local landscaper/master gardener and parent volunteer, to help restore the trails and habitats. The two schools share this 1.45 acre wetland on their grounds, which combines a wet meadow, lowland forest, and upland forest. For the past four years, over 500 students have worked to restore and sustain this resource. This year, with help from the Eco-Schools USA program, the schools expanded their efforts to foster environmental stewardship by focusing on increased student involvement and leadership.The Eco-Action Team of students, staff, and community members took charge of Wetlands Week, deciding on a theme, scheduling the classes’ work during the week, organizing the volunteers and publicity, and providing related curricula. The students have always been the driving force and muscle behind the work in the wetland during Wetlands Week, but the teachers wanted the students to be more engaged in the process from beginning to end. So, this year, students from Cindi Bennett’s 2nd grade class and Dina McDonald’s 5th grade class performed an audit of the wetlands and school grounds in the middle of winter. They reflected on their observations to determine what work needed to be done. The students and the rest of the team decided on the following action plan:
Students also took an active role in creating their Eco-Code. They held a school-wide contest to create an Eco-Code that would promote their sustainability theme. Almost 200 students entered drawings, poems, and slogans. All entries were displayed in the school, and a school-wide vote produced three top winners. Students and staff could then order T-shirts and other items with one of the three designs. Many students and staff wore these during Wetlands Week, and at the all-school assembly at the end of the week when they celebrated their hard work with special guest Ranger Rick. The efforts of the enthusiastic Eco-Action Team paid off twice; Wetlands Week was a big success, and they also succeeded in earning the Eco-Schools USA Bronze Award!
Now, the work goes on. Thanks to concentrated efforts to remove invasive species and clear overgrown areas over the last several years, the schools are moving closer to the goal of establishing an outdoor classroom. They hope to use the space to promote awareness of the natural world and foster environmental stewardship. Future goals involve deepening student knowledge of the native plants and animals found within the wet meadow and forest environments and further developing student understanding of how all our actions affect the wetland and the other ecosystems in which we live.
Visit Emily Dickinson Elementary’s Wetlands page for more information about their work.
Last year Roger Crafts, a middle school math and science teacher at Villa Academy in Seattle, WA., organized a Green Team at his school. The team, made up mostly of 6th and 7th graders, meets after school to evaluate school needs and devise projects aimed at moving the school down the path towards sustainability. As a lover of the outdoors and the environment, Mr. Crafts started the club because he felt it was important to help students explore issues surrounding environmental stewardship, sustainability, and conservation
Greening the School Grounds
Many of the Green Team’s activities so far have taken place outside the building on the school’s expansive grounds, which include a 15 to 20 acre forested area and fruit orchard. At the beginning of the school year, students revitalized the native plant garden, which they established last year, by incorporating newly donated plants. Along an on-campus trail that leads to nearby Lake Washington, they planted Douglas fir trees donated by the city of Seattle’s Releaf Program.
The Green Team also invited a representative from Woodland Park Zoo to guide them through a two-month-long nature mapping exercise. Students learned how to locate and identify a variety of animal species on the school grounds utilizing binoculars, field guides, and a handheld GPS device
Greening the School Building
Inside the school building, the Green Team and Villa 5th grade students have helped implement a recycling and composting program. Although the project was started last year, further inspiration came this year from a composting workshop many of the students attended, hosted by Seattle Public Utilities and Metrocenter YMCA. At the workshop, students learned about Seattle’s composting goals and what other schools are doing to help engage their communities in composting. So far Green Team members have put composting and recycling bins in classrooms, given presentations about lunchroom and classroom waste practices, and are working to add drink dispensers and washable cups to the lunchroom’s existing supply of washable trays and silverware. In the future they plan to introduce reusable lunch bags with the Green Team logo (Reusies.com) and metal water bottles to the Villa community.
Greening the Curriculum
In addition to starting the after-school environmental club, Mr. Crafts has also taken steps to incorporate environmental learning into his classroom curriculum. His 6th grade science students completed a school mapping project last fall to identify which parts of the school campus are most important to them and are now working on narrowing down potential restoration projects for their spring Environmental Science Unit. In a month, the same students will complete an energy audit of the school building, which was constructed at the beginning of the 20th century. They plan to utilize the energy audit offered by Cool School Challenge, an Eco-Schools USA partner, and use the results to help them implement changes at the school that will help conserve energy and cut utility costs.
Finally, this past fall, Mr. Crafts traveled to Goddard Space Center outside of Washington, DC, where he was introduced to the Eco-Schools USA Climate Change Connections curriculum. This curriculum, developed in collaboration with NASA, utilizes the Eco-Schools USA framework and NASA resources, data, and programs to create a comprehensive program that helps teach students about climate change. Mr. Crafts’ goal since joining Villa Academy has been to give his students the opportunity to participate in hands-on environmental science projects that will allow them to conduct research, gather data, and analyze and share results in order to enhance their learning, as well as to establish lasting positive changes at the school and throughout the community. This new curriculum, which he is piloting with teachers from all over the country, will help him do just that.
Click here to learn more about the Green Team’s activities at Villa Academy.
Mike Garguilo, a science teacher at Sleepy Hollow Middle School in New York, and his colleague Angel Linteau, an English teacher, are passionate about sustainability and helping their school go green. The team helped write the sustainability curriculum for Westchester County, New York, and have been working to incorporate environmental education into their classroom lessons. A few years ago they decided to take environmental awareness outside of the classroom by starting an after-school environmental action club that has grown by leaps and bounds. The problem: how do you run an environmental action club and green your school on a tight budget? Well, Mike and Angel have found quite a few creative solutions to that problem.In the beginning, the club held bake sales and raised donations for charitable organizations, focusing on building student awareness of environmental issues at the national level. Over time, however, they chose to focus their efforts locally. They decided to grow a vegetable garden on school grounds. The club quickly discovered how expensive plants can be, so they came up with an ingenious idea; they would purchase packets of seeds which the nearby Washington Irving Elementary School would start in their greenhouse. The club would then transplant the seedlings into their outdoor garden. This collaboration between the high school and elementary school has been named ‘The Growing-up Program.’The environmental action club also needed to acquire tools and skills to effectively convert the school grounds into a flourishing vegetable garden. This is where the community came into play. The club reached out to a local gardener, Elizabeth Kaplan, who shared her tools and volunteered her time to show the students how to plant and cultivate a garden. The local community college also provided support. Kristin Quell-Garguilo, Mike’s wife, is a professor at Westchester Community College and has donated her time to help students with their greening efforts.Along with the garden, students at Sleepy Hollow Middle School have taken steps to green their school building. Like many schools, they contemplated the energy-saving benefits of putting solar panels on the roof and other large-scale efforts aimed at cutting the school’s footprint. However, because of a tight budget, they had to take a step back and look at smaller, more manageable things they could do to reduce energy use. To their surprise, they discovered that they didn’t need to go big to make a real impact. Computers in all of the classrooms are now connected to accessible power strips, making it easy to flip the switch at the end of the day. Club members also put labels on all of the monitors in the computer lab asking users to turn the computers off before they leave. When the club first completed their energy audit, they discovered that 83% of computers were left on. By taking these simple steps, that number has dropped by 71%.
Sleepy Hollow Middle School is also piloting a new recycling program. At the end of the last school year, students cleaned out their lockers and donated binders in good condition to the environmental action club. Now, a few weeks into this school year, a hundred binders have been distributed to students in need.
Mike believes there are a number of creative ways schools can go green and increase environmental awareness without a big price tag. “There are a lot of companies out there that sell expensive stuff specifically tailored to schools to help them go green. But by just cutting corners and thinking creatively you can make things happen on your own.”
* Sleepy Hollow Middle School received a bronze level award through the Eco-Schools USA program.
When Dianne Thompson began teaching a new environmental science class at Kent Meridian High School in Kent, Washington two years ago, she had no curriculum and almost no funding. But that didn’t stop students from signing up, and it certainly didn’t stop them from forging ahead with some ambitious plans.
“The students own the projects,” Thompson explains. “They really do it all. I just give them a vision.” The course is entirely project-based, and the focus is on getting students out of the classroom and involved in hands-on learning. Dianne introduces an environmental issue, shows students some of the tools they might use to solve it, and then the students decide on a course of action. The result is a real sense of ownership and motivation.
The first order of business was to transform the school’s courtyard into a habitat garden and outdoor classroom. For many of the students at this urban high school, being immersed in the natural world was a new experience. But Thompson found that as soon as they were outside getting their hands dirty, pulling invasive plants and learning how to create habitat for butterflies, birds, and other wildlife, they were hooked. “They got excited and started to care about the place,” Thompson says. With interest running high, the class then turned its attention to other issues.Another project involved tackling waste in the school cafeteria. Thompson introduced the topic and divided students into teams focused on food scraps, trays, and containers. “They just went hog wild!” she says. “They did so much more than I expected them to.” The teams had two weeks to plan how to educate the school about their issue, and “they filled my inbox with presentations!” Their hard work paid off as they successfully managed to implement recycling and composting systems that have reduced cafeteria waste by more than half.
Thompson believes that the course is working because it gives students the ability to make a real change. They want to do something, they are enthusiastic about the projects, and they don’t look at it as work. At the same time, it’s working because Thompson has sought out ideas and resources from many different programs and organizations to enrich the experience and to take it beyond the walls of her own classroom.Before getting involved with Eco-Schools USA, Thompson utilized National Wildlife Federation’s Schoolyard Habitats program for support in creating the habitat area. Writing a grant proposal helped to clarify their goals, and the resulting funding from the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF)helped made the garden a reality. Now students are also working to restore habitat in a nearby city park as well, and that has led to many opportunities—including a summer job for one of the students. Thompson has reached out to collaborate within the school as well. Students in the woodshop class built desks for the outdoor classroom and bird and bat houses for the habitat. Teachers throughout the school can sign up to use the outdoor classroom just as they might reserve the computer lab. Multi-age collaboration has middle school students visiting the habitat at the high school, and high school students using materials from a program called Hazards on the Homefront to teach elementary students about household products that are health and environmental hazards.
Kent Meridian is also participating in the Cool School Challenge, a Washington-based program that helps schools reduce their contribution to global warming. As with Eco-Schools, the Cool School Challenge engages schools in conducting an audit of their current performance and then creating a plan of action for change, in this case curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Eco-Schools USA and Cool School Challenge have teamed up to help schools meet the requirements of the Eco-Schools climate change pathway at the same time that they are taking the Cool School Challenge, and Kent Meridian is one of the first schools to take advantage of this opportunity.Thompson encourages other schools to tap into the resources that are available locally and online. With so many programs out there, she says, there is no need to be isolated. It makes sense to get support, network, find out who is doing similar things and build relationships. It’s a great way to get the school out into the community and bring the community into the school. And there’s no doubt that these exciting projects are benefiting both the students and their community!
PS41, a K-5 grammar school located in one of New York City’s high-density, low open-space neighborhoods, will soon have a new green space where students can learn about the environment and connect with nature. This first-of-its-kind, 15,000 sq. ft. Greenroof Environmental Literacy Laboratory (GELL), will help raise environmental literacy and enhance students’ awareness of the stewardship role they play in the health of the planet.GELL will completely transform PS41’s roof. It will feature an observational learning space with walkways and gathering areas. A section reserved for wildlife will provide habitat for birds, bats, butterflies and other insects, and the flora will add much-needed greenery to the urban environment. Not only will the roof provide a valuable learning opportunity for students, it will also benefit the environment of New York through improved air quality, reduced carbon emissions, decreased storm-water runoff, and relief from the city’s heat island effect.The vision for GELL grew from small seeds. Back in 2003, Vicki Sando, a parent at PS41, realized that her kindergarten-aged son had nowhere to go to learn about plants. She talked to the PTA, gathered a bunch of planter boxes, and started the school’s first gardening program. Over the years, the program took root and eventually the school community started envisioning something bigger that incorporated not just gardening but other aspects of environmental literacy as well. Tapping the school’s unused roof space made sense. Supporters at the school started talking to local officials about securing grant money. So far they have raised almost $1.5M, in cash and in kind, from people who believe in GELL. Groundbreaking on the project is projected to begin in June 2010.As the parent of a child in the New York school system, Vicki Sando feels that it is important for the next generation to embrace nature and the environment. “In an age where we are increasingly becoming disconnected because of technology, and we are seeing an increase in obesity and threats of mass species extinction, students need to care,” she says. She also believes that parents can play a role in helping students reach this objective. She encourages schools that are striving to become Eco-Schools to reach out to parents, empowering them to take on a specific topic they care about, such as water conservation or energy use, and help lead the school’s effort to go green.
If you would like more information about PS41 and this project please visit www.ps41.org
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