January 2017 was the third warmest January in 137 years of modern record-keeping. Approximately 40 percent of the lakes in the U.S. are polluted for fishing, aquatic life or swimming, and pollution is one of the biggest global killers, affecting over 100 million people, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet titled “Nonpoint Source Pollution: The Nation’s Largest Water Quality Problem.”
While the statistics seem discouraging and the topic of the environment is an ongoing discussion amongst many world leaders, it’s not lost on some local organizations that are trying to make a difference. They are helping the next generation by teaching children how to be stewards of the environment and live a sustainable lifestyle. Below are just a few of the schools and other Northeast Ohio groups that are developing these programs.
At Laurel’s Outdoor Pre-Primary School, the forest, meadows and creeks of the school’s Butler campus serve as the classroom year-round. This 120-year-old private institution educates students ages 3 to 5 outside every single day, no matter the weather, away from structured curriculum where they are free to manage their own body signals.
With the outdoors as their classroom, children at Laurel develop an immense respect for living things, learn about habitats and ecosystems, can identify and name plants and animals, and develop a stewardship and understanding of environmental responsibility through composting and recycling.
Audrey Elszasz, Outdoor Pre-Primary teacher and outdoor education specialist at Laurel, says, “Above all, they learn to understand the human impact on the Earth and discover how we can interact with nature and do no harm. These students develop such a love for the planet and learn to think about how to always do right by it.”
Rebecca Coley, a Laurel parent, says her daughter’s experiences with the program include “hiking to base camp and traversing down challenging terrain, being independent and excited to put on her gear and get muddy, catching salamanders with her bare hands, and investigating animal tracks.”
There are many schools and programs doing outstanding work in our community to teach children this valuable lesson about caring for our natural resources. After all, the future of our planet is in their hands. Perhaps it was Walt Disney who said it best, noting, “Our greatest natural resource is the minds of our children.”
Rust Belt Riders
Maybe you’ve heard that 40 percent of food grown in the U.S. is wasted. According to a 2010 EPA report, 24 percent of municipal solid refuse is compostable. That number is even larger today. Rust Belt Riders is working to create wealth from that waste through the conversion of food scraps into value added products. The company is an organic waste removal service available to Northeast Ohio businesses, schools and institutions. It works primarily with commercial food waste producers, but also helps teach children in our community about the importance of composting.
The group, which visits with students from kindergarten through high school, begins by teaching kids about the massive food waste problem in our country and then gets them thinking about potential solutions. By informing them of all the benefits of turning garbage into compost, Rust Belt Riders works to reframe garbage as a resource.
“We try to start at a young age to demystify the trash heap,” says Michael Robinson, one of the founders. “Then we get our hands dirty.”
For example, at Akron STEM High School, they worked to build vermi-composting systems, and at other schools they have even worked with students to build a three-bin system that allows the school to compost a portion of the food waste that comes from the lunchroom.
Robinson says they are happy to create a customized lesson depending on the age of the children they are visiting.
Veggie U, a nonprofit based in Oberlin, supplies classroom gardens and a standards-based, five-week science program to teach elementary and special needs students how to grow food. The kids plant their own mini-crop, tend to it and learn in daily lessons that, while instructive, seem more like play.
The lessons include studies of soil, planting, plant anatomy, composting and nutrition. In addition to a hands-on, scientific approach to learning about plants and their components, Veggie U incorporates extensive journal activities, mathematics and language arts, providing an immersive study of core concepts. The students also care for a worm farm and celebrate the end of the program with a vegetable Feast Day.
Veggie U is dedicated to increasing children’s awareness of healthy food options, but students also are learning about creating a more sustainable, environmentally friendly food system that leaves a reduced carbon footprint. When learning how to grow their own food, kids also are gaining an appreciation for the natural imperfections that are a part of food production, thus helping to reduce food waste.
Nadia Clifford, Veggie U executive director, sums up the essence of the program with a short phrase, “Healthy soil, healthy vegetables, healthy kids!”
“Eating better food means staying healthy and living longer,” says Ann Marie Nocella, marketing manager. “It means knowing how to grow, choose and prepare foods that are kind to our earth.”
Kelly’s Working Well Farm
In the fall of 2016, Kelly’s Working Well Farm in Chagrin Falls opened a full-time school for children ages 4 to 18. Students there learn about the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient — and they aren’t necessarily learning this by reading books. Children at this school create their own “permaculture” by actively participating in food production, food preservation, and cooking local and seasonal ingredients. The six-acre farm on the outskirts of historic Chagrin Falls village houses goats, sheep, chickens, pigs and other farm animals, and maintains a fruit and vegetable garden.
The curriculum teaches children about botany, biology, nutrition, chemistry, anatomy, architecture, structural engineering, carpentry and so much more. All of this is accomplished through a wide variety of seasonal activities such as amending the soil, planting, managing and harvesting foods grown on the farm, composting, food storage and preservation, milking, and small animal processing, to name just a handful.
There are no grades and there is no age segregation here. Students and staff in this environment have an equal voice in deciding how the school will be run. Kelly Clark, director of Kelly’s Working Well Farm School, says their permaculture ethos approach to learning helps students develop a strong connection with the natural world.
Girl Scouts (& Boy Scouts)
Girl Scouting’s mission is to build girls of courage, confidence and character, who make the world a better place. One of the three main focuses of the program is to give girls the chance to “take action;” to do something to make the world a better place.
Troops can choose from a series of Journeys, one of which is “It’s Your Planet — Love it!” in which girls team up to identify a problem, come up with a creative solution, create a team plan to make that solution a reality, put their plan into action, and then talk about what they learned and what they’ll do next.
On this journey to take action and protect our planet, girls and women at all phases of the Girl Scout experience get the opportunity to learn about environmental issues such as clean water, air and noise pollution, global warming, soil contamination and agricultural processes.
For example, Daisy Scouts learn about nature by visiting parks, farms and zoos, and talking to experts. They take action by doing art projects, planting trees or creating a garden. Brownie Scouts visit lakes, learn about water quality and learn from experts, then put theory into practice by making posters, promoting recycling or planting low-water gardens.
Other environmental-related Girl Scout activities include energy audits of local buildings, pushing for clean-air initiatives, inspiring others to eat locally, working to improve delivery systems and fighting hunger.
The U.S. Department of Education recognizes schools where staff, students, officials and communities have come together to produce energy efficient, sustainable and healthy school environments and to ensure the sustainability and environmental literacy of graduates.
Each year it awards schools that meet these standards and recognizes them as Green Ribbon Schools. In 2016, Urban Community School in Cleveland was awarded this prestigious title. Located on the near west side, Urban has many building features that translate into a healthy environment conducive to learning and the conservation of the Earth’s resources.
Urban Community School features natural light in the middle school addition. There are timers on computers that power down devices at night, and lights that turn off when rooms are not occupied. Urban installed 10 solar panels, resulting in an 80 percent cost reduction for electricity.
The school encourages carrying reusable water bottles, the middle school wing has refillable water bottle stations, and water fountains throughout the school have filters. Its “Learning Garden” has water retention features and includes many drought-tolerant species native to Ohio. Vegetables from the Learning Garden supplement school lunches, and teachers run a garden club. Recycling is routine throughout the school and composting has begun in the early childhood wing. Other conservation efforts include recycling ink cartridges and purchasing 100 percent recycled paper products.
All students in Urban Community School’s sixth grade go to the Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center for a four-day, three-night environmental camp, thanks to support from Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park. This camp immerses students in watershed and sustainability concepts and issues. Students build knowledge and skills around the topics of water quality, biodiversity, and applying sustainable practices to the design of a building. Students also practice green living by measuring food waste, separating items for compost or recycling, and reusing materials in creative ways.
Upon returning from camp, sixth grade students develop and implement a sustainability project. One recent project focused on the pros and cons of various energy sources. Students presented findings to other classes and developed an energy conservation plan for the school to implement. Students encouraged practices such as turning off lights and computer monitors, and analyzed the electricity bill at both the start and end of the project, resulting in a $900 reduction in electricity charges.
Other schools in Northeast Ohio also were bestowed this honor in past years for their dedication to green initiatives, according to the Ohio Department of Education. Old Trail School in Bath committed to reducing its carbon footprint by creating a model of school sustainability programs. Berea City School District implemented strategies to be more effective in transportation energy use, waste disposal, decrease carbon emissions and provided students — and staff — a comprehensive wellness program. Kenston Local Schools in Chagrin Falls initiated energy conservation, recycling and composting programs. Metro Catholic School in Cleveland implemented LEED principles and created garden projects. West Geauga School in Chesterland committed itself to an Energy Improvement Plan, which saved gallons of water and produced its own on-site energy with a wind turbine.