Green Schools | Feature

Charting a Green Course

Environmentally focused charter schools have shed their Birkenstock image by preparing students for the high-tech, clean energy jobs of the future.

"We're not tree huggers!"

That's what Alison Suffet Diaz's students used to say in the early days of Lawndale, CA's Environmental Charter High School, the environmentally focused charter school she founded in 2000 in a South Los Angeles neighborhood where four out of five families live below the poverty line.

That was when the mere mention of a charter school--let alone a green charter school--conjured up images of kids climbing trees and practicing yoga poses at recess. "When they played in sports, the other teams on the field would burn a tree [in effigy], thinking that was our mascot," she laughs.

Image wasn't the only thing Environmental Charter High struggled with at first. Because charter schools--essentially independent public schools--do not typically receive funding to cover the cost of securing a facility, Environmental Charter High originally shared its space with a local church. Since the facility didn't belong to the school, technology integration was a challenge, to say the least. "We started off just being very wireless, and struggled with firmware--not to mention getting the resources in order to get technology working correctly," says Suffet Diaz.

On top of it all, securing resources like E-Rate funding, for instance, was a challenge without a stand-alone facility recognized by the state. Needless to say, the school had to make do with the few technology purchases it could afford. "In the early days, it was hard to have anything as simple as an LCD projector in your classroom," recalls Principal Jenni Taylor, who taught at ECHS that first year. "We just didn't really have technology unless it was some resource we brought in." Science equipment, especially, was fairly limited.

A lot has changed since then. To begin with, charter schools don't carry the stigma they once did. Although only 4 percent of the nation's students are currently enrolled in charter schools, that number is fast increasing. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the number of US charter schools grew by 6.7 percent last year; a 7.5-percent increase is projected for the current school year. And in areas of the country plagued by underperforming public schools, stressed further by recession-fueled budget cuts, charter schools are being added at a dizzying pace. New York state, for instance, anticipates 20 percent more charters by the end of 2011.

The green movement, too, has evolved over the years: With renewable energy production now the fastest-growing industrial sector in the world and as many as 37 million US jobs expected in the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries by 2030, it has become clear that the days of associating environmental sustainability with hippiedom are behind us. Students in school today must prepare for these high-tech, science-driven green jobs.

Enter green charter schools. Given the autonomy to develop their own curricula, these institutions have evolved into veritable showcases for 21st century, tech-integrated learning, preparing a new generation of students to not only be good stewards of the Earth, but to take the science world by storm.

More than 200 charter schools in the United States call themselves members of the Green Charter Schools Network, a consortium and clearinghouse that was founded in 2008. Schools become members by adhering to the network's "green print," or list of core practices, according to Jim McGrath, the group's president and executive director. Another hundred or so schools affiliate themselves to some extent with the organization. The network facilitates communication among educators, parents, and policymakers alike, connecting them to resources and other schools that might want to adopt their own eco-focused programs.

McGrath points out that, for these environmentally focused schools, "green" is just a starting point for an ambitious educational and social agenda. "Our green charter schools really are at the forefront of not only greening their schools and sustaining our Earth, but they're also at the forefront of innovative education practices," he says--something he saw firsthand as founding principal of the Oakwood Environmental Education Charter School in Oshkosh, WI. Not surprisingly, McGrath and educators at network schools believe new technology will be fundamental to those changes.

STEM and Sustainability
"Science, technology, engineering, mathematics: STEM is the new buzzword in schools," says Suffet Diaz, now executive director of Environmental Charter High. Ten years after the school was started, the acronym is placed at the forefront of student learning--thanks, in large part, to the grant-writing skills of science teacher Ariel Levi Simons. Via the funds he's secured (see "Paying the Bills" sidebar), the school's 460 students are now armed with a host of technologies to support their project-based learning.

In Simons' AP Environmental Science class, for instance, students work like mini field scientists: In one recent project, they used handheld computers with plug-in sensors from Pasco to test water quality over a three-week period at five different sites in the area surrounding the school's campus. Video cameras were also employed to record visuals of the testing sites.

Once the data was gathered, the students headed back to the classroom and incorporated geotagging into the project--editing their data in Google Docs, placing it in a spreadsheet, and putting that and the video they had recorded on Wikimapia, a satellite imaging site that combines Google Maps with a wiki system in order to "describe the whole world." The students, says Simons, get a kick out of seeing their own little corner of the world up there. "Now you can go on Wikimapia, click on the five sites we've been to, and pull up a video and water quality record of what we did at that point," he says.

Water quality is also a hot topic for the Evergreen Community Charter School, a K-8 school with nearly 400 students in Asheville, NC, that follows an expeditionary learning model for its eco-focused curriculum. At Evergreen, eighth-graders took the water-sampling project a step further by focusing on a real-world problem: possible water pollution in the area. They collected samples from a local stream and plotted the sample data by geographic location via Google Maps.

By accessing the local Buncombe County Geographic Information Systems, the students made a list of property owners in the area. Once they have analyzed their data to determine the condition of the stream, they plan to contact the property owners to pass along that information. If, for instance, pesticides and fertilizer runoff are uncovered in the samples, the students will make recommendations as to how the property owners can minimize pollution.

"Whenever we're creating a project, we're trying to do it with an authentic audience," says Evergreen technology teacher Kevin Smith. "We want to make the students feel like they're truly responsible for something, that there are people out there who are really invested and interested in what they have to say and the outcome of their project."

Making the Connection
At Environmental Charter High, students connect to their authentic audience through the school's Green Ambassadors program. In the program, both a class and an extracurricular club, students use what they learn in science class to organize community outreach events. Their events, covering topics like composting and water conservation, incorporate everything from how-to videos and PowerPoint presentations to photo exhibitions. The "green ambassadors" also learn how to work with the media, both writing press releases and blogging to publicize their events.

To enhance their students' public relations skills, ECHS teachers incorporate yet another important technology component: social media. "They learn how to navigate and use social technology in order to organize events and make effective community change," says Taylor. Facebook and Twitter are utilized, and a student intern is responsible for monitoring the social websites for the school.

This emphasis on social media not only helps students hone their environmental messaging skills--it also should serve the students well once they enter the job market in a few years, explains Suffet Diaz. "The reality is, to be successful in your work life, you have to be able to sell yourself," she says. "A lot of what the Green Ambassadors class teaches them is how to be PR and marketing geniuses."

At Evergreen Community Charter, where younger students navigating the world of Twitter and Facebook could pose a security risk, tech teacher Smith introduces his fifth- and sixth-graders to social networking by having them create their own sites on Ning to complement the science curriculum.

For a lesson on aquatic organisms, Smith's students created a social network where they posted profiles as salamanders, mayflies, water penny beetles, and other invertebrates. "That's been a really fun project because it's so similar to Facebook and what they're doing in their day-to-day life," he says.

Paying the Bills

Just how are these STEM-focused green charter schools funding technology purchases for their students? "Grant writing," says Ariel Levi Simons, science teacher at Environmental Charter High School in the Los Angeles County community of Lawndale, CA. As public schools, charter schools receive a per-student allotment of taxpayer dollars, but in some states they don't receive the same amount as their more conventional public school counterparts do. What's more, charter schools do not typically receive any financial help with facility expenses, making budgets even tighter than they are for cash-strapped traditional public schools.

In the little over a year that Simons has taught at ECHS, he has spent about 150 hours alone on writing grants--a daunting but somewhat familiar task for the physicist who still spends his summers as a researcher. The organizations that Simons has applied to include Raytheon, Toyota Tapestry, ING Unsung Heroes, Donors Choose, Edison International, and Chevron.

Grant writing is also a large part of fundraising for Evergreen Community Charter School in Asheville, NC, says Development Director Eleanor Ashton. In North Carolina, charter schools do not receive money from state lottery profits like other public schools, so Evergreen must put on a number of fundraising events each year, including an annual benefit concert and silent auction. Asheville is a very arts-focused community, so a number of prominent artists in the area donate their work to the auction. Parents, too, are very involved in keeping the school afloat financially--giving to the school's endowment, volunteering in the office, even driving on field trips. Ashton is one of those parents: She helped found the school 12 years ago (both of her children attended) and stepped into her full-time position after the former development director chose not to return from maternity leave.

Even with this support, says Ashton, the school struggles financially. "Funding is a challenge for charter schools," she says. "We don't have the latest and greatest technology like some of the other public schools do." Technology teacher Kevin Smith says that just forces him to be creative. "A lot of times schools are just going out saying, 'We need a Smart Board,' and then it just sits in the room and no one ever ends up using it," he says. "We make the most with what we've got."

Getting Results
For Smith, the integration of technology and the environment is a perfect fit. It's precisely this combination, he says, that gets kids excited about learning itself. "The kids are very self-aware and extremely self-motivated compared to what I've seen in the past," he says.

Evergreen's development director, Eleanor Ashton, echoes that sentiment, pointing out that there is more to the school than technology and the environment. "As much as our kids are using technology, they're also doing a lot of outdoor activities: snowboarding, skiing, rock climbing, backpacking," she says. The students end each school year with a camping excursion, leading up to a four-day Outward Bound trip for the graduating eighth-graders.

"Sometimes people get the impression that we're a camp," Ashton laughs, "but we're not." She points to Evergreen's academic record as proof that this kind of hands-on learning works. Last year, the school was named an Honor School of Excellence--the highest designation awarded by the state of North Carolina--for its end-of-grade state test scores. Ninety-four percent of students in grades 3 through 8 tested at or above grade level for reading and math; every single eighth-grader passed the science exam; and the school met all 13 Adequate Yearly Progress goals established by No Child Left Behind.

Environmental Charter High boasts similar results: In a part of Los Angeles where many young people don't even graduate from high school, 92 percent of ECHS students are admitted to four-year colleges and universities--a requirement for graduation. US News & World Report recently ranked ECHS in the top 3 percent of public high schools, and the school was a finalist in President Obama's 2010 Race to the Top commencement challenge (a competition one of ECHS' social networking–savvy students learned about via Twitter).

Not every charter school sees this type of success, of course. A recent study by Mathematica Policy Research, for instance, found that middle school students in charter schools across 15 states generally performed no better in math and reading than other public school students. But Principal Taylor credits ECHS' tech-focused curriculum for engaging today's 21st century learners, many of whom would be bored in a traditional classroom setting. "We have a lot of kids who are just really kind of science brains," she says. "Without the right equipment and techy stuff for them to be able to play with, you won't engage that learning experience for [them]."

For Suffet Diaz, who has seen her school's credibility evolve from "this hippie blah blah blah kind of school to one that's serious about learning about science and technology," the added green focus provides more than the potential for a cleaner environment. "The larger picture for me in creating this school is inspiring the kids to care about anything, so that they care about their learning," she says. "Once you get kids to care, then they say, 'OK, I need to pass my English class so that I can apply to college so that I can do this career I really want to do.' So having the STEM materials on campus and having the teachers who have the ability [to use them] is critical to our students' success."

Greening the Green School

At Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale, CA, students take what they've learned in the classroom about conservation and spread that knowledge to their local community through the school's Green Ambassadors program. So, it would only make sense that the school would take its environmental outreach inward as well, greening its own facility wherever possible.

The result is one of the most environmentally progressive campuses in the country (remarkable, given its urbanized South Los Angeles location), complete with multi-material recycling, composting stations, rainwater collection, edible organic gardens, a biodiesel refinery, and student-built cob benches. What's more, "a lot of the transformation that has happened on campus was a result of the kids identifying problems," says Executive Director Alison Suffet Diaz. Through the school's permaculture class, for instance, students worked with instructors to solve the problem of giant puddles that would ruin their outdoor lunch area during the rainy season. The solution? A seasonal campus stream and wetlands, creatively constructed to divert the flooding.

At Evergreen Community Charter School in Asheville, NC, students are working with technology teacher Kevin Smith to brainstorm ideas for a new building the school is adding to its campus. They're using Google SketchUp to put together three-dimensional renderings for the project. "The architect is interested in seeing what green design principles the students can incorporate," says Smith. "It's really neat that some of their ideas from the model they create could actually be incorporated in the master plan."