Green Eyes On: Local Schools Go Beyond Green

We call this column "Green Eyes On" because it's supposed to be about the stuff that I lay my green eyes on. My last piece was about exciting recommendations coming out of the American Medical Association's annual meeting to eat more local and organic food. Sometimes it's about places I've been and people I've met who are doing incredible things to promote health and protect our environment. But I have to say, my favorite moments are when my green eyes land on a team or group who is helping and inspiring the next generation of thinkers, greenies, and environmental warriors.

Such was the case about a week ago when I went upon invitation to check out a new charter school in Indianapolis.

The Project School, as it's aptly named, is run by a friend of mine from college, Tarrey Banks. As a charter school in an under-funded public school system, the school is run on a shoestring. But that hasn't stopped them from thinking out of the box and serving their students in a new, innovative and inspiring way.

I'd write for pages if I gave you full descriptions of everything that they're doing so here are the headlines:

• They're cleaning with only green cleaning products including straight-up vinegar and water whenever they can.

• All of their paper products are recycled content paper.

• The kids are engaged in growing projects, today just limited to a few flowers and vegetables in pots and planters in their courtyard, but next year it will include a complete organic garden in an abandoned lot behind the school.

• They're working towards having a large on-site kitchen so they can have greater control over the food they're feeding their kids (admittedly not the best at the moment) and to use as a teaching facility for the kids in the vein of Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard / Edible Kitchen.

• They engage parents and community members in a way I've never heard of before; hosting Curricular Summits during which members of the staff, parent and student body, and community gather with the idea that the curriculum should come "directly and authentically from the communities in which our students live." If a parent says health and nutrition is a big concern, it becomes a part of the curriculum. If someone says the environment or air quality or litter is an issue, it too becomes a set of lesson plans. While I was there visiting the results of one classroom's daily air quality readings were on display by the windows. (On days when the outdoor air quality is especially bad the kids stay inside for recess.)

• They take the kids outside of the classroom to learn, calling it P-3 learning: Problem, Place and Project Learning. Here's a great example. They want their kids to understand that as they grow they will have a role to play in their community. (This is an underprivileged neighborhood but with many families who have lived there for three to four generations). And if they want to get stuff done, they have to be prepared to ask and fight for it. So they took kids for a stroll one day as part of their classroom-work and asked them to take note of the sidewalks in the neighborhood, explaining that it isn't by accident that there are sidewalks on some stretches of the street and not others. The lesson: if you want a sidewalk, sometimes you have to lobby and go to battle for it. These kids, trust me, are ready to go to task.

• At the Project School, rather than using hypothetical situations they set students up to work side-by-side with community members on "real projects that will translate into a better community."

Terrey says they are "teaching kids to use their hearts, minds and voices well." If this little story isn't the most perfect example of that, I don't know what is. This past year the school was engaged in a community meeting as they applied for a grant through the United Way to enable them to build a fence for their schoolyard. One of the Project School 6th graders stood up in this meeting and said (I'm paraphrasing here), "Think about the environmental impact of not giving us that fence. Every day, five days a week, we board a diesel powered bus to drive us three miles away to a city park so we can play. That comes out to 30 extra miles every single week on that stinky diesel bus and over 120 pounds of co2 emissions over the course of a year. Give us that grant and we can become one step closer to a sustainable school."

That's the power of a school thinking outside the box.

Not only are they "going green" in the ways you might expect (using non-toxic cleaning products and recycled content toilet paper) but they are laying down roots, taking a stand, and transforming a neighborhood where children just need something to latch on to. And, man, are they opening brown, blue, yellow and green eyes to a whole new way of living.

That is going green in a lasting way.

Tags: Education | Gardening