Eco Awards: Education Edition

We recognize the schools that are training the next generation of eco-warriors.



The IMHO Series examines the intersection of technology and culture. The first book in the series looks as what it means now that our world has become so wired.

Illustration by Jon Krause

The children are our future, and judging by the kids we have in the East Bay, that future is bright. This part of the country has long been at the forefront of the green revolution, and nowhere is that more apparent than in our schools, where world-renowned chefs build gardens, ambitious teachers create fantastic curricula, and forward-thinking administrators work to save energy. And of course, there are the inspiring kids who take the lead on so many of these projects.

 

With so much going on, Diablo decided to dedicate this year’s Eco Awards entirely to the work our students and educators are doing. Because, as we discovered, our schoolhouses rock.


 

01

Best Solar Program

Mt. Diablo Unified

If the Mt. Diablo Unified School District has a theme song, it’s surely “Here Comes the Sun.” That’s because the district has the largest K–12 public school solar project in the nation. In 2010, voters approved Measure C, a $348 million bond to improve school facilities. Among the projects funded with that bond is the installation of solar systems at 51 schools by fall 2012 (to date, 26 have been completed). The solar project, which is expected to cost less than $80 million, should produce 12.14 megawatts of energy, accounting for 81 percent of the district’s electricity usage—a combination of savings and revenue generation that should be good for $223 million over 30 years.
“The savings during the first five years will [pay for] 100 teaching positions each year,” says Pete Pedersen, the special projects director in charge of Measure C.


 

Student Advice

Q: What’s the one thing anyone can do to go green?

“They could bring their own bag [to the store], instead of using plastic ones. They could use double-sided paper. And they can compost: Most people don’t do that.” —Phoebe Troup-Galligan, fifth grade, Head-Royce.

 

02

Best in Show: Alameda

Head-Royce school

When Head-Royce decided to go green in 2006, there was no halfway about it. Teachers, students, and administrators all threw themselves into projects. The school consulted with the Center for Ecoliteracy and the Green Schools Initiative, and over the last six years, it instituted a broad range of eco-friendly changes. These include the construction of a LEED-certified high school building, the addition of an organic garden complete with chickens, and a curricular emphasis on ecoliteracy that carries from kindergarten all the way through high school.

“You don’t come to Head-Royce school if being green or environmentally sensitive isn’t one of your family’s core values,” says Debra Harper, a K–5 science resource teacher and chair of the school’s green council (20 percent of her time is dedicated to coordinating sustainability projects). “With the little kids, we emphasize personal choices—doing one thing to make a difference. With the middle school kids, we can teach the core science and the core social issues that are at play with being environmentally sustainable. And with the high school, we want our students to graduate entering a global world, and having the tools and the knowledge of environmental issues is just one part of that bigger picture of global citizenship.”


 

03

Best Student Teachers

Bentley School

Many schools have students leading the charge in building their green programs, but at Bentley, two students have gone so far as to teach a course on sustainability. At the end of every February, Bentley offers what it calls a miniterm, in which students choose from a number of two-week elective courses. This year, Dean of Students Sallie Bryan and school counselor Nell Branco offered a class on sustainability called Make a Difference, Make Us Green. Coteaching that class were two Bentley juniors, Emily Radler and David Tierney. In the course, students built raised beds and planted an herb garden, received guest lectures on organic food and sustainability, and drafted a proposal for Bentley to go green.

“I’m really excited to get our school participation growing, to really get our school more toward green efforts, and just to make our school more known as a green school,” Radler says.


 

Student Advice

Q: What’s the one thing anyone can do to go green?

“Either turn off your lights when you leave—my family leaves its lights on all the time—or change your lightbulbs to the [fluorescent] ones that don’t use as much electricity.” —Katee Fischer, sophomore, Las Lomas High.

 

04

Best in Show: Contra Costa

Athenian School

One of the ideological pillars Athenian was founded upon in 1965 was environmental stewardship, and nearly all of the Danville school’s 463 students get involved with an eco-friendly project of one kind or another—whether that’s converting a teacher’s old beat-up Honda into an electric car; creating biodiesel in the science labs, with the goal of converting the school’s buses to Willie Nelson’s favorite fuel; making the campus more water-efficient by putting in perennial plants that require less water and improving catchment; or working with the school’s organic garden and its two-ton capacity composter.

If the curricular and student-led efforts weren’t enough, Athenian also partnered with Tioga Energy and RCA Solar to install an array of solar panels (in the shape of an A) on campus. The panels now provide more than 60 percent of Athenian’s power. And almost 60 percent of the school’s hauled waste gets recycled. The school has been certified by the Contra Costa Green Business Program—no surprise, given the way green seems to flow through Athenian’s veins.

“We work hard at it,” says John Harvey, a Spanish teacher who manages the composting and the garden. “I guess, above all, we do it because we think it’s the right thing to do. That’s the ultimate answer.”


 

05

Best Janitor’s Closet

Moraga Unified

The ingredients in cleaning products are often toxic—and can be especially damaging to young children. So in 2005, the Moraga Unified School District began to cut out the chemicals. The district reduced its use of herbicides and pesticides, and began using a low-toxicity, biodegradable cleaning product called H2Orange2 for cleaning inside the buildings on its campuses. “It’s just become part of the culture,” says Superintendent Bruce Burns, who also notes that this year, the district eliminated room deodorizers. “When people understand that the reason is for student safety and health, they come around.”


 

Student Advice

Q: What’s the one thing anyone can do to go green?

“I would say planting your own garden so you don’t have to buy your fruits and vegetables from all over the world, but can get them locally.” —Kaitlyn Elvidge, senior, San Ramon Valley High.

 

06

Best Special Ed Program

Foothill High

Tucked in the front corner of Foothill High’s campus, next to the teacher’s parking lot, one finds an impressive garden: eight 4-by-16-foot raised beds and a greenhouse, all growing vegetables and herbs year-round. What’s even better is that the garden is cared for primarily by about 30 students in Foothill’s special education program.

The special education food program uses the vegetables grown in the garden to prepare dishes like carrot cake as well as to make soup for an annual banquet for Foothill’s teachers. Gail Myers, a special education teacher at Foothill, has also taken tomato plants and herbs from the garden, and sold them at the school’s student store. Additionally, special education classes run composting and recycling programs at Foothill.

“Basically, my whole science curriculum is formulated through the garden,” says Myers. “I’ve been teaching for 28 years, and this is the best avenue I’ve ever had.”


 

07

Best School Within a School

Berkeley High Green Academy

It’s become common for schools to incorporate sustainability into their science programs, but at Berkeley High, an entire curriculum is built around the idea of a greener future. The BHS Green Academy, one of six academic programs within the school, aims to prepare students not only for college but for careers in the sustainability industry. There are about 290 students in the program, and much of the learning in is hands-on: When they learn about wind power, they have a contest, building small-scale turbines; when they learn about watersheds, they take a field trip to Strawberry Creek; when they learn about green architecture, they take a walking tour of green buildings in Berkeley, including the Brower Center. The program culminates with students getting an internship or mentoring experience at companies that include the Rising Sun Energy Center and AC Transit.


 

Student Advice

Q: What’s the one thing anyone can do to go green?

“One thing I do is, I take the public bus to school every day. Our family has a garden so we can eat locally. And when we go on vacation, we unplug all the clocks and everything.” —Essie Atherton, fifth grade, Head-Royce.

 

08

Best Broadcast

The Green Screen

In 2006, Lana Husser started The Green Screen, in which a group of East Bay teenagers create a monthly half-hour television episode detailing an environmental project.

“I started with 23 kids that first year,” says Husser, a retired Richmond High teacher. “The kids came to my house every Thursday night, and we started talking about many different environmental issues—what would you do to make the best show. I started putting cameras in their hands, and it evolved from that. Now we’ve finished 36 half-hour shows.”

The Green Screen airs on 10 different Bay Area stations, including KCRT in Berkeley, and has its own YouTube station. The show has featured composting lessons, tours of the Bay and Delta with the Marine Science Institute, and profiles of environmental activists. Participating students have gone on to college to study environmental science, journalism, and filmmaking. Most importantly, as Husser explains, students set a great example for their fellow youths.

“More kids are impacted [by the videos],” Husser says, “because they say, ‘Oh, those kids are just like us. If they can do it, we can do it.’ Or, ‘They’re not weird: You don’t have to be the geek or the nerd to care about the environment.’ ”


 

09

Best Building of the Future

Bishop O’Dowd

Students at Bishop O’Dowd High will soon have a Center for Environmental Studies that would make most colleges jealous. The school has employed a green team of architects from Siegel and Strain to design a center that will incorporate indoor and outdoor learning spaces (more than 4,000 square feet of classrooms), state-of-the-art laboratory equipment, and facilities for environmental science, applied ecology, and environmental engineering. The designers have held focus groups with students, parents, faculty, and alumni to help the planning and conception of the center, and the school will update its science curriculum to take full advantage of the new facility. The plan is to break ground on the building, which school president Steve Phelps calls “beyond LEED certified” and which will cost $2.3–2.7 million, during the 2012–2013 school year.

At the same time, Bishop O’Dowd is collaborating with the Stanford and UC Berkeley environmental engineering departments to research efficient water use—part of a 10 year, $40 million National Science Foundation grant the universities received to evaluate worldwide urban water infrastructure.


 

Student Advice

Q: What’s the one thing anyone can do to go green?

“I think that being green is a collective effort, and there’s no single thing you can do.  Personally, I would ask that everyone walk more and drive less.” —Nathaniel Miller, junior, Campolindo High.

 

10

Best Recycling Program

San Ramon Valley High

Stop by San Ramon Valley High on a Tuesday afternoon, and you’ll catch an inspiring sight: 20 students streaming across campus carrying garbage bags full of recyclables. It’s certainly not something you used to see.

“When I started here, in the ’05–’06 year, there was no awareness about trash,” says social studies teacher Andrew Gardner. “At lunchtime, I would come out and look, and there would just be mounds of trash. So that was my drive to really create some awareness. What we’ve seen over the past seven years is an amazing reduction in the trash at lunch.”

The students, many of whom are in SRV’s E2 (environmental and engineering) program, collect cans and plastics, and Gardner loads the recyclables into his truck and takes them to the recycling center. The recycling program has raised between $4,000 and $5,000, which has been put back into campus beautification projects, including herb and native plant gardens.

“The great thing is, we didn’t add any supervisors,” Gardner says. “What happened was, we changed the culture of the student population, and now they’re looking out.”

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