Environmental education gaining ground in schools

The Providence Journal Thursday, December 27, 2007 By Peter B. Lord

Last spring, Dan Miller, head of school at The Wheeler School, sought volunteers from the faculty and staff to look for solutions to transportation problems in the school's crowded quarters on Providence's East Side. He had no idea what that simple request would trigger.

Some 30 teachers stepped forward, he said. They created parking incentives for car poolers and recommended subsidies for bus passes. More people began bicycling and taking trains. And then the faculty, staff and students wanted to do much more.

Since then the school has launched programs to reduce its use of electricity, paper and water — and saved thousands of dollars. It is using more local produce in its cafeteria. It has made curriculum changes ranging from summer reading assignments to math projects.

Being an independent school, Wheeler enjoys the flexibility that allows it to surge ahead quickly. But it is not alone in making the environment a priority.

Just as the climate-change crisis has moved to the front burner for the public and the media throughout the country despite little support from the Bush administration, environmental education is surging with few federal incentives.

Six years ago, a group of parents in South Kingstown wanted a school that made environmental sustainability one of its top goals. Last week, the Compass School, with 145 students, won local zoning approval to build three new "green" buildings on a campus that focuses on its fields and gardens rather than textbooks and computers.

Individual schools in Westerly, Woonsocket, Newport, Cranston and Smithfield have established strong science departments that focus on environmental issues.
Thousands more students are affected by special programs provided by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island and Save the Bay. Audubon reaches 33,000 youths annually and Save the Bay, 20,000.

To Miller, the current interest and passion for the environment evokes the period three decades ago when the first Earth Day took place and much of the nation's key environmental legislation was passed.

"There's obviously an interesting momentum that brings back the 1970s," says Miller. "We now have the opportunity to create a generation of environmentally conscious people."

Not everyone is convinced the environmental education wave will keep spreading.
There are concerns that budget shortages caused by the state deficit could affect local school spending options. Already, some schools are having trouble financing transportation or any other "extras."

Some teachers feel pressured to keep their students focused on work that will be tested by the federal No Child Left Behind Program.

What's more, this is the first year that science education will be tested statewide. While some educators say they are working to provide curriculum that supports the state's science guidelines, others worry the guidelines will force teachers to skip some important areas, such as marine issues and climate change.

The so-called "Grade Span Expectations in Science" generated by the state Department of Education focuses on biology and earth and space science, not climate change or ocean science. In fact the guideline uses the word "climate" seven times, but it does not focus on the current alarms being raised over dramatic climate changes. Ocean science is limited to a few references to ocean currents.
Rhode Island's standards were developed in conjunction with New Hampshire and Vermont. Gail Scowcroft, who teaches graduate level science to teachers at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography, was on the team that prepared the standards, but she says couldn't generate much interest in ocean issues or climate change.

"The standards are very rigorous," Scowcroft said. "They did a good job. But our concern is that if there are no test items that refer to ocean science or climate science, teachers won't teach them."

Linda Jzyk, a science specialist with the state Department of Education, acknowledged that some are concerned that the Ocean State doesn't require more ocean studies. But she feels those concerns are unwarranted.

Teachers are free to use Narragansett Bay or the marine environment to teach students about key science concepts that the state wants children to learn, she said.
"We're trying to get the message out that environmental education and ecology are paramount to our state," Jzyk said. Similarly, the guidelines don't focus on mountains, Jzyk said, but that doesn't mean teachers in New Hampshire and Vermont shouldn't use their mountains as educational opportunities.

Jzyk said she sees exciting things happening at the Blackstone Charter School and high schools in West Warwick, Woonsocket and Narragansett. Michael Ferry, a science teacher in Woonsocket, has organized a clean water festival that involved more than 1,000 middle school students. Students at Cranston High School West, working with science teacher Steve Krous, have twice won the National Ocean Science Bowl in recent years, beating teams from all over the country.

Jzyk said she recognizes that "typically in this testing frenzy some schools won't take advantage of some programming because they're afraid they won't have time to hit the GSEs [grade span expectations ]. But the schools I mentioned have done a wonderful job aligning their programs to GSEs in an integrated and meaningful way."

Despite those concerns, and the lack of systematic support at the federal level for environmental education, Scowcroft also says she sees good things going on around the state and the country.

Some 20 teachers each spring take a course she teaches on climate change at URI. Others sign up for two- to six-week research experiences with local scientists.
"Because of heightened awareness about environmental problems, more and more teachers are answering questions from students," Scowcroft said. "If a student has a specific interest, a good teacher will want to encourage that, so the teachers become very creative."

Rhode Island's two biggest environmental groups also help.
The Audubon Society sends educators to schools, and hosts students at its refuges and its environmental education center in Bristol.

Audubon aligns its lessons to support the state guidelines for science, says Kristen Swanberg, Aubudon's education director. "For the elementary students, we just try to get them outside," she said. "A lot of urban students don't have the opportunity to go outside. We're on the Bay. We have our own wetlands."

Both Audubon and Save the Bay offer programs to teach the teachers. Bridge Kubis-Prescott, who heads Save the Bay's educational programs, says she understand that some teachers feel forced to "teach to the test."

"But I think that different studies over the past couple of years find that hands-on experience enhances the quality of education," said Kubis-Prescott. "It doesn't look like it's hurting them to get out of classrooms."

Both educators said they were hopeful for passage of the No Child Left Inside legislation co-sponsored by Sen. Jack Reed that would provide $100 million a year for environmental education programs. Chip Unruh, Reed's spokesman, said last week it was unclear how the bill will fare.

Now that it has zoning approval for its "green" campus, The Compass School is looking for the money to build it.

The new buildings are designed to have no hallways, classrooms will open to the outside — the school's focal point.

Even without green buildings, students are doing energy audits of their homes, learning how to measure the use of electricity and selling cloth grocery bags.
"Our goal is to teach kids that if you have this today, how can you be sure you'll have it tomorrow?" says Alan Zipke, the school's director.

The Wheeler School is already designing a new building that will have a literally green roof, as well as other "green" features.

In the meantime, teachers have learned to cut paper use by reducing margins and doing two-sided copying. Shutting off lights has reduced electricity use and saved more than $1,200. By drinking water from a cooler, the school avoided the use of 7,164 pint-sized bottles of water.

Faculty walkers have increased from 16 to 20, faculty bikers are up from 2 to 3 or 4, and two people have started taking trains.

Every Friday, "eco-emails" are sent to everyone at the school and a group of students stays after school to turn out lights and pick up recyclables. Signs in the bathrooms urge the use of less toilet paper and fewer paper towels.

The school is using Rhode Island Public Transit Authority buses for field trips. It's planting more trees on campus.

"Dan was afraid he wouldn't get enough people do work on this," says Suzy Williams, a science teacher. "But here, everybody wants to do it. The teachers are excited and it's helped us point the kids in productive directions."

Miller couldn't be happier with the school's new direction. "I believe sustainability will be an essential institutional issue for schools in the future, and I wanted to be on the front end."

He clearly gets his own message.

Miller says he recently bought a Prius hybrid car.

plord@projo.com