AFT Members Swap Strategies for Green Schools

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The Lorax isn't the only one speaking for the trees. AFT members from California, Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, New York and Texas, as well as our union allies from  the AFL-CIO and the BlueGreen Alliance, attended and presented workshops at the second annual green schools national conference Feb. 27-29 in Denver.

Members from the United Federation of Teachers in New York City and the Douglas County Federation in Colorado gave presentations about their school programs, covering the gamut of environmental initiatives, starting with recycling and progressing to vertical vegetable gardening and wind power. In each case, school employees initiated the programs, which became wildly popular among students and the community.

Steve RitzUFT member Steve Ritz describes the Green Bronx Machine using small models of his school's vertical vegetable gardens.

Special education teacher Steve Ritz led a session about his program, in which students learn to install and cultivate green walls and roofs. With help from the South Bronx community, Ritz's Green Machine has grown more than 25,000 pounds of vegetables while also improving academic performance and work opportunities for students. His classroom features the first indoor edible wall in New York City's public schools; it routinely yields enough produce to provide 450 healthy meals to students, and it trains a certified workforce—students who have installed green roofs from New Jersey to outer Long Island.

Ritz has bumped up attendance from 40 to 93 percent, helped create 2,200 youth jobs and won an award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. His speech at Columbia University, "From Crack to Cucumbers," along with several videos, including a TED talk in January, have drawn a national following, including an invitation to the White House.

Another UFT member, special education teacher Mitch Porcelan from Brooklyn, gave a presentation about his efforts to reconnect students to the natural environment and create meaningful learning experiences. His students, who spend time gardening and studying outdoors, have improved their performance significantly on standardized tests.

Members of the PeaceJam Club from Ponderosa High School in Douglas County, Colo., presented a session on their extraordinary environmental efforts addressing recycling, e-cycling, energy management and renewable energy. The PeaceJam Club, sponsored by school secretary and AFT member Debbie Ruiz, is part of an international education program that brings together students and Nobel Peace Prize laureates. As the students explain it, most wars are fought over natural resources, so their club aims to prevent war by protecting natural resources.

PeaceJam ClubPonderosa High School students from Parker, Colo., share the history of their environmental PeaceJam club.

The PeaceJam Club members launched an energy management program at their school, Ponderosa High School, that has saved $320,000 in energy costs over the last four years. The program became a model that has spread to schools across Douglas County School District, resulting in a 24 percent energy reduction and saving $11 million.

Ponderosa building engineer Carey Kalisch, also an AFT member, has spearheaded room-by-room HVAC scheduling using digital controls, and energy savings by cutting down on the number and type of lights. But it's not all on him. One student explained that it's "really important to be polite to teachers" when requesting fewer overhead lights in a classroom. Teachers will be persuaded, he said, when they see that the result is calmer kids and fewer headaches.

Beyond energy savings, Ponderosa PeaceJammers students also have mounted an enormous recycling program, reversing their school's ratio of garbage to recycling. Ponderosa now recycles 81 percent of its trash stream. The kids have helped organize several electronics recycling events that have seen nearly 500,000 pounds of electronics collected to be recycled responsibly. The PeaceJam Club won a $10,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy's Wind for Schools Program to install a wind turbine, and Ruiz wants to build an outdoor classroom nearby.

"These kids get it," says Ruiz. "They’re not interested in the usual teenage things or consumed by the usual teenage angst. They realize the world is a bigger place and they have a responsibility to make it a better place."

Among other AFT delegations at the conference, members of the Denver Federation for Paraprofessionals and Nutrition Service Employees took away some useful lessons from organic food vendors, said local president Bernie Jiron. The most useful was learning about the advantages of gluten-free food in preventing asthma and allergy attacks, particularly in children with disabilities.

And educators attending a session by David Sobel of Antioch University learned that teachers may be frightening little children inadvertently with stories about how humans are wrecking the earth—without saying what kids can do to help. Sobel urged educators to train students as environmental stewards, beginning with getting kindergartners outside to play in the natural environment.

New York State United Teachers leaders from Rochester helped run the AFT booth, distributing information about healthy school buildings, indoor air quality and green jobs, as well as featuring models of green walls by the Bronx Green Machine.

At the general session, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan drew applause by calling for environmental literacy in the upcoming ESEA reauthorization. U.S. Department of Agriculture official Janey Thornton spoke about the federal government's healthy food initiatives for schools. And community activist Majora Carter wowed the crowd with a presentation about the greening of her rundown neighborhood in New York City.

The BlueGreen Alliance is a coalition of labor unions, including the AFT, the Steelworkers, the United Auto Workers and others, and environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Other allies at the conference included the National Wildlife Federation's Eco-Schools USA program, the Collaborative for High Performance Schools and the Center for Green Schools, which is preparing for its Green Apple Day of Service on Sept. 29. [Annette Licitra/photos by Ernie Leyba]

March 6, 2012