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Teens lead effort to green America's oldest school

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At Boston Latin: a network of green-minded individuals, partnerships in the community, testimony at public hearings, climate summits and solar panels. The leaders? Most of them aren't even old enough to vote.

Solar panels on the roof of Boston Latin School. Cate Arnold pictured at far right.

In Boston, at the country’s oldest school: a network of green-minded individuals, partnerships in the community, testimony at public hearings, climate summits and solar panels. The leaders? Most of them aren’t even old enough to vote.

The Youth Climate Action Network (Youth CAN) was founded in 2007 by students at the Boston Latin School as a network of school-based, youth-led, extracurricular climate action clubs. Today, there are 18 member groups in Massachusetts.

I recently spoke with Cate Arnold, an eighth grade history teacher and the faculty Adviser for Boston Latin’s Youth CAN. She talked about engaging students and educators in learning about new ways to take care of our planet.

How unusual is it to have a student-led program like this?

It’s unusual, but it’s also gotten so big. There are a lot of school groups that are doing cool things with their schools, but they’re not as broad and don’t have the reach that Youth CAN does.

How do students approach sustainability differently than grown-ups?

I’m guessing they have a more earnest approach--more earnest about feeling responsible for the climate overall and that it’s theirs to do something with. They’re not as jaded by how complicated the problem is. They still believe that they personally can be involved in leading a change that can make a big difference. The truth is, they’re right. The adults believe in small personal changes, but the kids think in terms of large-scale change. They seem more willing and eager to do that, and they are the ones who are going to have to show the adults what to do.

So what has Youth CAN accomplished?

  • One of the first things we did in 2007 was a light bulb drive. It was a program with NSTAR where they give you bulbs and then what you earn is profit. The students changed out the light bulbs in the auditorium to 509 incandescent bulbs. The kids asked for that to happen.
  • They commissioned an energy audit, and they will raise money for a lighting retrofit.
  • We host an annual Climate Summit at MIT. We had our fourth climate summit last May that 225 students from 47 Massachusetts middle and high schools attended. My kids have put together this massive event with workshops and meals and door prizes.
  • They came up with a huge proposal for a shared green roof.
  • They turned off the lights in the vending machines, which will save $2,000 a year, and we’re getting plugs for the machines that track when they are in use. You can turn it down so it’s not refrigerating at maximum level at low-use times.
  • They are getting people to recycle foam trays in the cafeteria.
  • We’re launching a farm-to-school pilot that will bring local, farm-grown food into the cafeterias for lunches.

Is the network just in Massachusetts?

Just in Massachusetts so far, but I met with VEEP [Vermont Environmental Energy Program], which is interested in starting in Vermont.

Do you have to train the teachers?

That’s right. That’s why this summer, as part of the Massachusetts Education for Sustainability Campaign, the students pushed to have teachers come together for a week of training. We had 34 teachers from 17 schools. They developed a curriculum for us that will be piloted this fall at the Boston Latin School and pushed through the network.

What are some of the things teachers learned for the curriculum?

Math teachers were doing things on calculating carbon footprints. In my history class we’re going to look at the Europeans arriving in 1492. There’s an argument that the Taino Indians that Columbus encountered were living so efficiently at that time. We’re going to look at those issues through the lens of sustainability. All under the background of the fact that the Taino were eventually wiped out . It becomes a complicated question. They’re going to keep sustainability journals this year.

Has there been resistance to this among other students?

Some kids rebel against it just because they are teenagers and decide they won’t recycle. Some people don’t want to Xerox on the opposite side [of used copy paper] to save paper. We had some young kids wearing sandwich boards at lunch promoting tray recycling, and some of them came back saying the seniors were throwing their trays in the trash can just to be mean.

What other campaigns have you run?

We did a Think Outside the Bottle campaign to get people to drink tap instead of bottled water. We had a kid tap dancing, saying, “Tap is where it’s at,” and we had lots of public service announcements. We did some blind taste tests and collected the data. We found that people couldn’t consistently tell the difference.

You have some new solar panels on the roof?

We got a grant from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative for a 28-panel array because of the kids pushing and asking for them. Those were installed in April.

Where is the power going?

It’s going back to the grid. None of the energy savings at the school will benefit the school. We have $3,300 a year saved with the lighting retrofit, and it’s all saving money for the city. We’re a public school, so us greening the school will make more money available in the budget for other schools. It would be great if schools got a credit for the money they saved. There would be more incentive. We’re trying to create a model for being more sustainable that’s beyond reproach.

How have you changed your habits because of the kids?

  • I bought a Prius. I couldn’t keep showing up in the 4Runner.
  • I can’t stand the thinner paper towels, and I thought I’d hold out forever, but I’m even starting to cave on those.
  • I’m more sensitive about cleaning products, about whether I’m buying local, about how I’m spending my money.
  • I’m voting with my dollars in all kinds of ways. Usually it starts with guilt and then I percolate for a while. We are starting to separate the garbage and giving the compostable waste to friends who compost.

What was your involvement in green issues before this started?

None. It’s not that I didn’t think it was a good idea, but I didn’t know anything. I’m primarily a history teacher.

Images: Cate Arnold

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure