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Environmental educator: Get 'em while they are young

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Colleges and universities are building curricula around sustainability. But what about the formative years?

Many colleges and universities, particularly those with business schools, are busy building curricula that involves environmental policy, how to think about sustainable resource management and the like. But what about educating people about sustainability during their formative years? I'm betting it wasn't a part of your K-12 education, with the possible exception of Earth Science field trips.

One experiment that aims to get children thinking about sustainability issues at a much younger age is the Environmental Charter Schools program, a charter initiative that was formed in 1999 in Lawndale, California, at the high-school level. A related middle school was opened last month in an effort to inspire students to think environmentally from a younger age. There's an ulterior motive: the administrators are hoping that students won't have to do as much catch-up work when they hit the high school.

"We thought about how much more we could do with the high-school students if we brought them in where they need to be," says Alison Suffet-Diaz, founder and executive director of the Environment Charter Schools. "We hope to get kids to care about issues that are larger than themselves."

This is the school's overall mission: "to inspire students to discover their own sense of purpose, to equip all students with the knowledge and skills to graduate from college, and to empower them to become quality stewards of their community and world." The middle school opened its doors to 120 6th grade students for the 2010 – 2011 school year; each year a new class will be added, until there is an average enrollment of 330 students.

The schools are open to students from Los Angeles county; they are selected from among applicants by a random lottery. Suffet-Diaz says the program works by integrating the environment into every subject that is taught, so that it becomes part of the context in which a subject is learned and challenged. At the high-school level, as an example, the economics of plastics would include a debate about the potential environmental impact, which would not necessarily be the case in a traditional learning environment. There is a theme to each year in the high school: for example, 9th graders are encouraged to become green ambassadors, sophomores are challenged to consider progress in the context of the environment; every senior must complete a thesis. The school also extends the learning environment out into the community, with frequent field trips.

Middle school is where educators "lose" the attention of students, which is another reason Environmental Charter Schools is looking younger. "Ultimately, we'd like to be a model K-12 system for the nation on how to grow a green school system," Suffet-Diaz says.

It goes without saying that the administration is working to ensure that the school buildings themselves are as "green" as possible. Back in April, Environmental Charter teamed up with Global Green USA in a bid to share best practices for both administration and teaching policies. Global Green has been involved in more than $17 billion of green school construction in Los Angeles since 2002. Part of its philosophy is that students will demonstrate better performance -- by 18 percent to 20 percent -- if they are taught in classroom environments with improved day lighting.

Don't live in California? Here are some other organizations that might serve as green schools resources for your community:

  • The Green Schools Initiative, concerned primarily with the environmental health and ecological sustainability attributes of schools and classrooms
  • The Alliance to Save Energy's Green Schools Program, focused on energy efficiency programs
  • The U.S. Green Building Council's Green School Buildings effort, seeking to create green learning environments
  • The GreenSchools program, which is only in 17 states right now, but is largely focused on matters of health (at least from a quick glance at their web site)
  • The Green Schools Alliance, which is concerned with both the learning environment and incorporating green values into school curriculum
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Green Schools Checklist

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure