Greening schools on a shoestring

| 30 Aug 2013 | 01:13

Times are tight these days for schools. It’s not hard to see how the convergence of aging buildings, budget crises, and a hawk-eyed focus on testing could push that nebulous aspiration of “going green” right off the agenda. Many a conversation with educators begins with an apologetic, “Well, with the way things are right now…”

“It’s hard to coordinate” taking a classroom outside and into a teaching garden, said a Warwick elementary school teacher. “How do you manage 25 kids and sharp things? A lot of people feel you can’t take the time.”

“We have the oldest building after the board office; it was built in 1957,” said the Vernon director of school facilities about the school building that houses pre-school through first grade.

“It takes a lot of time to write a grant, and the first grant I wrote I was declined. With teaching it’s a little bit hard to fit everything in, because that was my own time,” said a Hamburg science teacher who wanted to buy composters. Yet, with some out of the box thinking, the school personnel quoted above are among the innovative educators who are finding ways to green their schools and educate what will be a critical generation of the earth’s stewards. Wanting to recognize their efforts, we surveyed the elementary and middle schools in our area, ranked them according to their commitment to the environment, and profiled a few that we found – and hope you’ll find – inspiring.

Composting in the cafeteria

Hamburg School, Hamburg, NJ

“We call it a field trip,” said Theresa Christiansen, the science teacher at K-8 Hamburg School, of the day when the cafeteria workers accompany the science class to the composters, to see what’s happening to the food scraps that they put aside. “It’s a little walk, but we call it a field trip.”

Last year, Christiansen applied for and got a $5,000 grant from the BASF Corporation for a composter and new fencing for the school garden. BASF is a huge international chemical company that doled out $100,000 to 20 New Jersey schools in 2012. Christiansen, whose science classes had been composting indoors with worms, had researched composters on the internet and had finally settled on one with a “spirally kind of turning mechanism” – but Hurricane Sandy took out the warehouse. So after some more research, she opted for two big tumbling composters, which the school started using in May.

“I just thought it would be a great idea because we waste a lot of food in the cafeteria, so I thought that we could put it to good use, and the kids could actually see the process of food breaking down. We just started a food garden in the lower grades. We gave the compost to them for the garden,” she said.

Making everyone feel involved, from the cafeteria workers to the younger kids, is an important aspect of this project. “We brought our [old] composting bin down to the fourth grade a couple times to show them what was happening, and then when the compost was finally done we proudly brought it to them, bags of dirt,” said Christiansen.

Composting with worms took months. With the tumblers the process takes about six weeks. Each tumbler has two 15-gallon compartments, so that as one compartment matures, another can be started. “I think we’re going to be getting a lot when we really get it up and rolling,” said Christenson.

The science classes take the bin of scraps from the cafeteria out to the composter (so far it’s just the food scraps from behind the lunch counter, not leftovers from the kids’ trays), collect dried leaves from the playground area to add to the mix, and observe the decomposing material. Once they looked at it under the two microscopes that were also purchased with the grant money. What did they see? Not much. “One of the students was able to see something squirming around. I think it was some form of bacteria,” said Christiansen.

“It’s a nice wraparound: we’re cleaning up the playground, we’re taking the scraps out, we’re making it useful for another grade,” said Christiansen. “It’s more like a community type of lesson if you will. Like we’re helping ourselves.”

Cleaning with water

Walnut Ridge School, Vernon, NJ

One of the first things Matthew DeLaRosa did upon becoming Vernon School District’s director of facilities was to have someone turn off all the lights at the high school at 5:30pm. The district saved about $160,000 over the course of a year. Since then, the district has steadily been standardizing its schools and making them more efficient, which translates to greener, but also – crucially – cheaper.

At Walnut Ridge Elementary School, attended by the littlest of Vernon’s students, the floors of the long hallway are burnished to a shine. The wall-to-wall carpeting has been ripped up. The lights, which were put in when the building was built in 1957, have been swapped out for higher efficiency fluorescent bulbs that require less voltage. (LEDs were too expensive). The lights also go off after the room has been still for 15 minutes. “I was wondering about that,” said the substitute computer teacher, who went out for coffee and found his classroom dark when he got back. The subtlest change is also the most groundbreaking: what’s in the janitor’s closet. Or rather, what’s not in the closet. Before, janitors used about 20 different cleaning chemicals, “a mix of household type cleaners,” said DeLaRosa. “Different schools had different head custodians, and they were allowed to use what they felt worked.” Now, for all areas except the bathroom and nurse’s office, all the district’s schools use a new technology called electrically converted water. Special spray bottles intake water and zap it with a chemical charge, which creates a chlorine-smelling alkaline and acidic stream that attacks dirt.

“We have more and more dealings with children with allergies and sensitive immune systems,” said Principal Pauline Anderson. “We have a few children that are medically fragile. It’s especially important. And the children are at that age where they are on the floor as much as at the desk, and they put everything in their mouth.”

Serving others, starting with birds

Bellvale School, Chester, NY

Bellvale is a small private Christian school, with about 40 K-8 students, five or six of whom are from outside the tight-knit Bruderhof community. The Bruderhof is an international movement based on communal and simple living.

Bellvale is different from other schools in all sorts of ways: students use textbooks but not computers; the entire community gathers for lunch, where food from the community garden is served daily and parents sit with their children; most students walk to school; and a primary tenet of education is working with one’s hands, to milk a cow, carry maple sap to the sugar house, harvest potatoes or build a birdhouse. Partaking in the community’s work fosters an appreciation and “a realistic feeling of what real life is about,” said Principal Arno Wright.

“We try to educate the whole child, not just the academic side,” said Wright. “How you get along with others, how you use your hands, our faith. And that the primary reason for education is so that you are better equipped to serve others. That’s our basic education philosophy. We try to keep things pretty simple at the lower end, try to get a good foundation at the core subjects. We find that when students have a good foundation, many things are possible as they grow older and find their way in the world.”

The students always keep a list of birds they see on the property and the date they were spotted. The third and fourth grade teacher, who’s into wild birds, recently started a class project: attracting Purple Martins, the largest North American swallow, a breed that has, since the Native Americans, been dependent upon people for providing their nesting places. “They’re domestic even though they’re not tame -- and they eat lots of bugs,” said Wright.

The students researched what kind of a house they’d like, then found an old one and fixed it up, then built a second one. The hardest part, though, is attracting the birds. The kids rigged up a CD of Purple Martins singing, and played it loud in the early morning and evening for a few weeks in the spring, testing the patience of the community residents. Five or six pairs of Purple Martins came and made the house their home.

Once they’ve nested, they will always come back to the same place. This year, there were 17 pairs nesting in the two houses, raising dozens of fledglings. “In about a week or so, they start back to Venezuela or wherever they go in the winter,” said Wright, in late July. “But they come back in the spring.”

Learning is faster in the garden

Sanfordville Elementary School, Warwick, NY

Maripat Barlow-Layne doesn’t think of herself as a garden expert. “I’m not!,” exclaims the kindergarten and first grade teacher. “I don’t feel adequate actually. I don’t have the strength to dig down and deal with the fence issue. We don’t have the money. Any money we’ve put in since the initial grant has been mine or parents’ for things like seeds. I make hills, not boxes, which is hard when we added kindergarten for them not to be stepping all over.”

It was years ago now that Barlow-Layne, who teaches in Warwick’s Partners in Education program, co-wrote a grant with the agriculture teacher at Warwick Valley High School. The approximately $1,000 grant paid for the posts and fence for the garden. One early year yielded a crop of tomatoes that the kids made into a marinara sauce that fed the whole school.

“Each year it takes on a life of its own,” said principal Roger Longfield. And despite Barlow-Layne’s professed lack of expertise, and visits from what seem like hundreds of resident groundhogs, there is life in the garden yet.

Lots of it. The caterpillar on the dill? A black swallowtail. The spider on the fence? Barlow-Layne posted spider inquiry on website, and a parent was able to identify it.

When the kids see worms they shout “Yippee!” The same kids who wouldn’t touch worms at the beginning of the year are by year’s end rescuing them from puddles. This year about 50 kids in the school’s Partners in Education program used the garden. Barlow-Layne is working to refurbish the garden and get the whole school using it.

“There’s lots of life out there. I like that they learn not to fear it,” said Barlow-Layne. Her gardening philosophy mirrors her educational one. Just as many of us tend to overcrowd seeds, not believing that the plants will ever get that big, “it’s the same with the kids. Every year they come in and you kind of think – oh my god, are they ever really going to get to this point?” Her teaching method is to go in-depth instead of broad ranging, bringing in math by doing surveys on the kids’ favorite vegetables, and writing by having the class pen stories about life from the perspective of a groundhog.

Counterintuitively, “I think they’re so interested in it that learning is faster,” said Barlow-Layne. “They can apply the knowledge right away.”

To test that point, Barlow-Layne calls across the café where we’re meeting to a 28-year-old artist, Kimberly Sikora, sitting at a nearby table. “Kimmy,” she said. “When you were in PIE [Partners in Education], did you have a garden?”

“We got 732 green beans,” Sikora replied, without missing a beat. It had been a decade since she’d grown those beans. “And we made our own pie and brought it to principal.”

One to watch

DIRT Charter School,

Southern Orange County, NY

“We lost a week’s worth of instruction for test prep,” said Chrissy Pahucki. “And I’m an art teacher.” That helps explain why Pahucki, who currently teaches at Goshen Middle School, is spearheading an effort to open New York State’s first rural charter school in southern Orange County in September 2014 called DIRT (Developing Innovative Rural Thinking – no relation to the magazine). Its mission: “The school will integrate environmental science throughout their curriculum. Students will use the Orange County environment as their laboratory for hands on, interdisciplinary projects which will serve as jumping off points for other subjects.”

Plans are still vague, since the organizers won’t know until December whether they’ll get the final green light from the state, which makes it difficult to lock down a lease. They’re eyeing everything from old school buildings, to vacant land where they might set up yurts, to the former Mid-Orange Correctional Facility. The latter has greenhouses, a piggery and a chicken coop, plus gun towers that could – in Pahucki’s daydreams at least – be turned into bird watching towers. Pahucki tried to drive in to look at it recently but got chased out by a car.