A student at Ahwahnee Middle School drops his cardboard lunch tray into the trash, spots principal Jose Guzman and quickly pulls it out. He knows the tray belongs in the recycling pile, and the banana peel inside it belongs in the compost pile.
“At this point, we’re not even reminding these kids to do it and they do it,” Guzman said. “Hopefully it’s a lifelong thing. What you do now, you don’t look back and say, ‘I learned that in seventh grade.’ It just becomes a part of who you are.”
In addition to recycling and composting efforts, Ahwahnee Middle has student-operated vegetable gardens, buckets collecting rain water and phrases like “think green” painted on the walls.
More schools may soon look like Ahwahnee, thanks to a statewide push for “environmental literacy” in K-12 schools. According to the Blueprint for Environmental Literacy, released in September by the state Department of Education, many students in California don’t have access to adequately funded, high-quality lessons on the environment. The report recommends “meaningful learning experiences” that get all K-12 students out in nature as much as possible, visiting parks, farms and science museums.
“The critical environmental concerns that face California demand that we think deeply about how to build a future that is sustainable, healthy, prosperous, and equitable,” State Superintendent Tom Torlakson said in the report. “We must invest our very best thinking, our very best efforts, and – above all – our very best people in improving the quality and reach of student education for environmental literacy in California.”
89Percentage of Californians who think it’s important that schools include environmental education, according to Department of Education
Ahwahnee teacher Sandra Nagayama’s science class focuses on the human impact on the earth, and students test rainwater for acidity and compare emissions between gas and electric vehicles.
“We’re trying to change the way students really see themselves as far as how they affect the earth,” she said. “I see a lot of them realize that as I teach. I think with global warming that they need to know to distinguish between fact and hearsay.”
Last week, student Ever Wagner dunked a pH test strip into some rainwater and wondered out loud about Fresno’s pollution problems. “It’s probably all these factories and all these cars,” he said.
Laneaya Bradshaw has taken the lessons she learned in Nagayama’s class and taught them to others. She likes teaching people about photosynthesis, even though she sometimes resorts to referring to the process as “photo stuff” because it’s a tough word to pronounce.
“I didn’t know about any of this until I met Miss Nagayama. My auntie didn’t either – I went to my auntie’s house and planted some seeds Miss Nagayama gave me, and now there’s a garden instead of just a bunch of weeds.”
Curtis Sisk, a teacher at Hoover High School, is helping lead a new career pathway for students that combines ecology, environmental science and technology. He recently received training from PG&E and is showing his students how to build “solar suitcases,” compact sets of solar panels that convert sunlight into electric. The suitcases will be sent to developing nations to be used as off-grid power systems.
“We wanted our students in the ag valley to get a heavy dose of scientific literacy … I think it’s absolutely necessary to show students what evidence really looks like and how to interpret that evidence,” he said. “We get deep into politics (about climate change) and have class discussions, and I try to get everybody to focus on what the data says. Emotionally, what we think about something doesn’t matter – it’s all about what the data says, and that should be driving our decisions.”