The New York Times
By: Mireya Navarro and Sindya N. Bhanoo
January 10, 2010
Jose Chirino, a 10th grader in Brooklyn with shoulder-length hair and a thin mustache, says flatly that his high school was his last choice.
Jennifer Auceda, 17, was similarly wary, given that she wanted to be a singer and never saw herself as a "science person."
"I thought it was going to be about the inside of trees," she said.
But the two reluctant recruits, who had both failed to get into the high schools they favored, said they were won over after realizing that the school casts a wide net.
Rather than simply covering predictable topics like recycling and tree planting, they say, it has alerted them to problems like sooty air and negative media representations of their neighborhoods.
"Green is not just the environment," Jennifer said. "It's politics, government, social justice."
"We do a lot of things other schools are not doing," said Jose, 15. "I feel like we're doing something important."
While plenty of city schools, from elementary to secondary, teach students about environmental issues like endangered species or global warming, places like the Green School put an overwhelming emphasis on civic involvement.
The students are encouraged to delve into local issues that may affect them and their families, like contamination in waterways like the Gowanus Canal, water quality or the razing of low-scale housing.
"You can't have a kid in a violent neighborhood and say, 'Let's talk about the polar bear,' " said Karali Pitzele, one of the school's two co-directors.
Across the nation, the range of green schools form a fledgling network, with some of them benefiting from state grants and mandates to incorporate environmental education into the curriculum.
They have found eager partners in groups like the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation, which provide lesson plans or money for field trips, and in private and government agencies that are making concerted environmental efforts in communities and cities.
Alison Suffet Diaz, founder of the Environmental Charter High School in Los Angeles, says the focus on environment hits particularly close to home in poor communities that she says are disproportionately affected by problems like contamination from industrial sites.
If grass-roots change is needed to address those issues, she said, "it can't just be a rich person's desire to be green."
Still, Randall E. Solomon, executive director of the New Jersey Sustainable State Institute at Rutgers University, which guides New Jersey towns on environmental efforts, said that green schools were not just a niche phenomenon for the poor or for the wealthy. "It's also mainstream public schools that are taking this on," he said.
It is hard to pin down how many private, and charter and traditional public schools nationwide have adopted an environmental theme. Many are new; some have a low profile. They do not share uniform standards that define them as green.
The Green Charter Schools Network, based in Madison, Wis., says it has counted about 200 green charter schools nationwide.
In New York, the green school phenomenon feeds into an effort to break up the city's enormous high schools into smaller learning settings, a centerpiece of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's overhaul of the school system.
At least 11 traditional and charter green schools at varying grade levels have opened in the last six years, officials at the city's Department of Education say, while cautioning that they were counting only those that identified themselves by name as "green" or "environmental."
Many of the schools have yet to graduate their first class, and their progress reports show grades from A to D, school officials said.
The Growing Up Green Charter School, an elementary school in Long Island City, Queens, opened in September with one kindergarten and one first grade class. It plans to expand gradually through grade five.
On a recent afternoon, in a classroom that is also home to an army of compost bin worms and a bearded dragon named Daphne, two dozen first-grade students thrust their hands into bags of potting soil while taking turns planting squash seeds, beans and corn kernels in plastic containers.
The task at hand was to answer the question of the day, posed by a sign in the back of the classroom: "How do we get our food?"
But the real point, said the children's teacher, Michelle Robles, was to help them understand how the local environment affects food choices, and the need to tend to the soil, air, water and plants.
"If you take care of plants, they can grow and grow so we can cook them," Alayla Mack, 6, said after the lesson.
Some green schools in New York chiefly emphasize the environmental sciences or teach skills that will prepare students for careers in renewable energy or other pillars of a greener economy.
The Urban Assembly School for Green Careers, a high school on Manhattan's Upper West Side, opened this year with a ninth-grade class and a focus on job skills needed for the design and operation of energy-efficient buildings.
Gregg Betheil, who heads the Office of Postsecondary Pathways and Planning in the city's Department of Education, said the school sprang out of specific efforts to match secondary education to labor trends and to the city's own goal of attracting more green industry.
Students learn hands-on skills like installing insulation and solar panels in preparation for entering the work force after graduation or pursuing college degrees in fields like engineering.
"We've got some schools investing in the skills kids need to compete," Mr. Betheil said. "No way is this a fad."
At the more civic-oriented Green School in Brooklyn, teachers send the students out into their neighborhoods to record public service announcements and videos about smoking and air pollution. They also walk the streets to map trees and trash cans, then incorporate their findings into mural sketches for geometry class.
In a recent class, students watched trailers for the films "2012," about humans struggling to survive a global apocalypse, and "Precious," about an abused teenager who finds a form of salvation in learning to read and write. The goal was to analyze the media messages telegraphed by the trailers before starting on their own videos.
At elementary schools, teachers in the lower grades emphasize hands-on projects like building habitats for specific environments, like teepees, or mapping the path of trash from their classroom bin to a landfill.
"It helps them learn early how their choices make an impact," said Barbara Weber, 43, whose 6-year-old son, Lawless Morse, is in first grade at Growing Up Green in Long Island City.
Ms. Weber, a textile designer from Jackson Heights, Queens, said she had already noticed some changes in Lawless. After a week of studying habitats, she said, he asked why many homes in their neighborhood were made of brick. He also peppers her with questions about how and where various animals live.
Lawless, wearing neatly pressed khakis and a polo shirt with an embroidered "Growing Up Green" logo on a recent morning, said he really liked school.
But as it turns out, a movie -- "Wall-E," about a garbage-collecting robot on an Earth bereft of inhabitants -- seems to have made an even bigger impression on him.
"All the people were gone because they littered so much," he said. "That's why we reduce, reuse and recycle."