Earth Day blooms big this year, celebrating its 45th anniversary on April 22. Among those paying attention are teachers and students who have committed to be environmental stewards and monitors through personal action, after-school clubs, school initiatives and ongoing learning and practice. The efforts of New York's public school students and educators have gained national and international attention.
"Environmental issues are definitely part of the spectrum in regard to social justice," said NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale, who oversees the union's social justice initiatives. "We can see environmentally damaged areas often in places where people of color, low-income families and the poor live. Green programs educate students, save money, lift communities up and benefit the earth."
There are many routes to begin or expand school projects to reduce harm to the earth. Following are a few impressive examples:
- Members of the United Federation of Teachers' Green Schools Committee believe schools must take the lead in reducing the city's ecological footprint through environmental education and with programs the students can immerse themselves in — including digging in the dirt. The goal of these educators is to share lesson plans, programs and field trips, along with advocating for educators who are working to turn their schools green.
- Staten Island's PS57 in 2013 became the first New York City school honored as a U.S. Green Ribbon School. Students and teachers plant fruits and vegetables in a 7,350-square-foot garden, and fresh greens are then served in the cafeteria. Students built a greenhouse from 1,500 recycled plastic bottles, and the robotics team built a solar-powered trike used to deliver wood chips, tools, flowers and plants to the school garden. Gardening and composting lessons are integrated into science, math, ELA, nutrition and health classes. Composting and recycling have reduced landfill disposal by 30 percent, and energy reduction efforts have saved between 16 percent and 28.3 percent of energy costs.
- In suburban Westchester County, the Anne Hutchinson Elementary School in Eastchester won a 2014 U.S. Green Ribbon School award. Their composting, gardening and recycling program keeps about 500-1,000 pounds of food scraps and non-recyclable items per week out of the trash, saving on tipping fees and use of garbage bags. The school also receives 2 cents for every recycled chip bag and juice pouch (50,000 each as of last year). Green programs include use of light sensors to lower electric consumption; installation of a system to shut down computers when not in use; and using rain barrels to save water for irrigation.
- Sustainability programs exist on college campuses across the state, and probably none more so than at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, where all educational and research programs are oriented toward natural resources. The college has its own Office of Energy and Sustainability for leadership and on-campus initiatives. Projects include solar panels, a wind turbine and a biomass combined heat and power plant in the new Gateway Building.
- In the Capital Region, Students for Environmental Action in Troy raised money to purchase recycling bins. One of their unique programs is assisting with locker cleanouts at the end of the year, when they save hundreds of usable notebooks, binders, pens, pencils and classroom supplies destined for the garbage to distribute to students in need the following year. Good boots and sneakers found in lockers are given to students in need or donated elsewhere.
- In northern New York, Lake Placid High School students tap more than 110 maple trees, producing maple syrup for the school cafeteria. They are piloting an organic waste recycling program with the town, collecting food from the school to be converted into renewable electricity when the system goes online later this year. The school's environmental club and community groups raised funds to build a waste management system for the cafeteria. Each school building uses zero-sort (single bin) recycling for paper, plastic, metal and glass. Recycling projects have included collecting discarded electronics and recycling blue jeans for insulation.
- At the Adirondack Youth Climate Summit in Tupper Lake, students create climate action plans. The program has just been selected by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as a replicable project.
FOR MORE INFO
To learn more about green schools, legislative issues and research studies, check out "Building Minds, Minding Buildings" on the AFT website at www.aft.org/topics/building-conditions.
For sustainability programs, contact the New York City Department of Education: http://schools.nyc.gov/sustainability or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Green Education Foundation sponsors a Green Fund challenge at www.greeneducationfoundation.org/green-thumb-challenge.html.