Green Schools

Texas AFT was among the American Federation of Teachers affiliates from across the nation represented last week at the second annual Green Schools Conference in Denver. Attendees included Karrie Washenfelder, president of our Fort Bend Employee Federation affiliate in Fort Bend ISD, who has taken a leading role in promoting green-schools initiatives within Texas AFT. (Thanks are due to AFT writer Annette Licitra for contributing the bulk of this report.)

Members from the United Federation of Teachers in New York City and the Douglas County Federation in Colorado gave presentations about their school programs, covering the gamut of environmental initiatives from recycling to vegetable gardening to wind power. In each case, school employees initiated the programs, which became wildly popular among students and in the community.

Special education teacher Steve Ritz led a session about his program, in which students learn to install and cultivate green walls and roofs. With help from the South Bronx community, Ritz’s Green Machine has grown more than 25,000 pounds of vegetables while also improving academic performance and work opportunities for students. His classroom features the first indoor edible wall in New York City’s public schools; it routinely yields enough produce to provide 450 healthy meals to students, and it trains a certified workforce—students who have installed green roofs from New Jersey to outer Long Island.

Ritz has bumped up attendance from 40 to 93 percent, helped create 2,200 youth jobs, and won an award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. His speech at Columbia University, “From Crack to Cucumbers,” and several videos (including a “TED talk” in January), have drawn a national following, including an invitation to the White House.

Another UFT member, special education teacher Mitch Porcelan from Brooklyn, gave a presentation about his efforts to reconnect students to the natural environment and create meaningful learning experiences. His students, who spend time gardening and studying outdoors, have improved their performance significantly on standardized tests.

Members of the PeaceJam Club from Ponderosa High School in Douglas County, Colorado, presented a session on their extraordinary environmental efforts addressing recycling, e-cycling, energy management and renewable energy. The PeaceJam Club, sponsored by school secretary and AFT member Debbie Ruiz, is part of an international education program that brings together students and Nobel Peace Prize laureates. As the students explain it, most wars are fought over natural resources, so their club aims to prevent war by protecting natural resources.

The PeaceJam Club members launched an energy management program at their school, Ponderosa High School, that has saved $320,000 in energy costs over the last four years. The program became a model that has spread to schools across Douglas County School District, resulting in a 24-percent energy-use reduction and saving $11 million.

Ponderosa building engineer Carey Kalisch, also an AFT member, has spearheaded room-by-room HVAC scheduling using digital controls, plus energy savings by cutting down on the number and type of lights.

Beyond energy savings, Ponderosa PeaceJammers students also have mounted an enormous recycling program, reversing their school’s ratio of garbage to recycling. Ponderosa now recycles 81 percent of its trash stream. The kids have helped organize several electronics recycling events that have seen nearly 500,000 pounds of electronics collected to be recycled responsibly. The PeaceJam Club won a $10,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Wind for Schools Program to install a wind turbine, and Ruiz wants to build an outdoor classroom nearby.

“These kids get it,” says Ruiz. “They’re not interested in the usual teenage things or consumed by the usual teenage angst. They realize the world is a bigger place and they have a responsibility to make it a better place.”

Educators attending a session by David Sobel of Antioch University learned that teachers may be frightening little children inadvertently with stories about how humans are wrecking the earth—without saying what kids can do to help. Sobel urged educators to train students as environmental stewards, beginning with getting kindergartners outside to play in the natural environment.

Also present in force at the Green Schools Conference were participants in The BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition that brings together labor unions, including AFT, the Steelworkers, and the United Auto Workers, with environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council.