The Environmental Charter School (ECS) in Pittsburgh’s East End was developed with a mission to educate students to high academic learning standards while using a curriculum that fosters knowledge, love of and respect for the environment, and the will to preserve that environment for future generations. This focus made the K-8 school a perfect match for GBA’s Green Schools Academy, which strives to create healthier schools within a generation.
As part of the Green Schools Academy (GSA), school representatives attend each of our monthly Inspire Speakers Series lectures and then follow it up with a full-day workshop with the speakers to determine ways to implement ideas shared at the lecture. The schools work with each other and with local sustainability experts to make lasting changes in their facilities.
Teachers and administrators from ECS have been involved in GSA as part of the initiative’s first cohort. As they embarked on their second year in the program, the ECS team sat down with GBA’s VP of Green Schools, Jenna Cramer, to reflect on their first year. The group interview was done one afternoon, sitting around the kids’ table in a classroom. The members of the team who were interviewed included: Laura Micco, Shannon Merenstein, Jon McCann, Tawana Cook, Steve Pellathy, Kelsey Weisgerber, Michelle King, Stephanie Franklin DeLuca, Katie Lockley and Kate Dattilo. Here are some reflections from the group conversation…
JC: Tell us about what makes The Environmental Charter School different from other schools.
ECS: We think different. We approach school different. We believe that it is our responsibility to build an active, engaged, and thoughtful citizenry – not just graduate students. We strongly commit to building systems thinkers, and using the platform of environment and ecology to explore complexity, diverse perspectives, and various disciplinary ways to engage in or explore a problem. Ecological literacy is more than tree hugging or understanding the power of an invasive species in an ecosystem. ECS recognizes that the world is more complex and the successful education experience means more than simply preparing students with content. We know that humans need content, yet require opportunities to create, innovate, share and think critically. Coupled with an intensity for believing that culture is as important as a curriculum framework and a thinking-centered learning space, ECS dares to do “school” differently, and build extraordinary little people into extraordinary big people.
JC: What were some of your key takeaways from your first year in GBA’s Green Schools Academy?
ECS: As educators, we don’t get many chances to talk about WHY we are doing something and listen to someone else’s reasons, too. Things don’t always happen with purpose. For example, we’re not just doing this because we’re ECS, but because we’re in service to our children and the community. It’s also really powerful to watch other schools go through that journey with you and to know you’re part of a network of schools that may have different views and reasons, but you’re all connected.
It’s also been meaningful to experience a “fire-starter” every month. Every now and then, we can lose our fire, but our monthly gatherings have served to remind us that we can keep going and can do more.
Finally, schools often get stuck in a cycle of checking boxes. We’re all told to do the right thing but we rarely dig into the WHY. That was the power of this program in our first year: helping us get to the point. It’s forced us all to reflect on a monthly basis and it allowed most of us to get to the WHY. That shift was the most important and we are now making fundamental changes in what we do.
JC: What are some sustainability-focused initiatives you worked on in your first year with GSA?
ECS: We’ve accomplished a lot in our first year. One thing we came up with was this idea of “The Green Fairy” as a fun way to inspire people. They responded better to suggestions made by The Green Fairy than those made by other staff members. We have also come a long way with our green cleaning initiative. We’re not all the way there yet, but we’ve made huge strides. We also see that the school reaches far into the lives of people in the community, so we’d like to make a green cleaning basket to send home with parents so they can implement these practices at home.
JC: How has the Inspire Speakers Series helped to motivate your staff?
ECS: So far, each speaker has had a palpable and obvious dedication and passion, which is infectious. Also, it doesn’t just feel like professional development to us. We’re always able to connect what we’ve heard in the lectures to something else and we’re always thinking about how we can implement these ideas realistically in a way that can impact students.
JC: How has GSA impacted your school and staff so far?
ECS: We have realized throughout this process that we don’t have to keep doing things the same old way just because that’s how it has always been done. There has been this collective mind shift… When we joined the Green Schools Academy, we thought we already knew a lot about sustainability, but this experience allowed everyone to connect more deeply with the topic at different points in the process. We all began to more clearly see our own personal responsibilities and how we can make a difference. That has been really powerful.
We’ve also been involving the students in these conversations, which makes it all more attainable to them. We’re laying the pathway so the kids can see that these things are possible.
What we got out of the first year in the Green Schools Academy was much more important than a new recycling bin or a windmill. It’s been an authentic process and now we’re going to spend our second year implementing some of the projects that we’ve been inspired to become a part of.
Keep an eye out for updates on The Environmental Charter School and the other great schools in our Green Schools Academy!