Students Teach a Lesson: Use Power Wisely

Times Staff Writer

It's hard to ignore the cuteness of Steven Yadlowsky's puppy-dog brown eyes and high-pitched, fourth-grader voice.

But the 10-year-old hopes Irvine Unified board members will look past his appearance at their Tuesday night meeting and listen to a cost-saving proposal he and his Santiago Hills Elementary School classmates will present.

They are the latest -- and probably the youngest -- to suggest how school districts can respond to the state's proposal to slash $6.2 billion in education funding with minimum impact on classrooms.

Their plan? Turn off the lights in empty classrooms and the district could trim its electricity bill about $1 million.

That's money, Steven said, that can go toward saving teachers' jobs.

"We're in a budget crisis," he said Friday while the class rehearsed the PowerPoint presentation it will give to the board. "It's very serious, and we're serious about trying to do something to save our teachers and our programs."

The combination fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade class researched the idea for six weeks before creating its proposal.

They called Santiago Middle School in Orange, which tried the same thing and cut its electricity bill 31%, then used the district's electricity budget and number of schools to compute how much Irvine Unified could save.

Their teacher, Deegie Phelps, used to work at the middle school and suggested to her students that they research the approach.

"In our class, we're always trying to figure out how to fix things," she said. "I always tell them they can make a difference in the world."

During the meeting, two students will narrate the presentation, and Steven will answer the board's questions. The final slide of their lecture asks the board that it consider adopting a district policy telling staff to turn off lights in empty rooms and that their presentation be placed on the district's Web site.

Then students will give the board posters they created with electricity-saving messages.

Sixth-grader Ethan Chandler, 12, drew a lightbulb and wrote, "A $imple action can $ave you million$." He divided the lightbulb down the middle, coloring one half yellow with big tears and the other part gray with a big grin.

"It's sad when it's turned on and wasting money," he explained. "It's happy when it's off and saving money."

Phelps said her pupils also learned about decimals and fractions, wrote business letters and performed public service while preparing the proposal.

"One of the things they're learning is how long it takes to do something like this and that you don't have instant results," she said.

Trustee Debbie Coven's first reaction when she heard of the project was "Awwww, how cute!" Despite the charm of children, she said, board members will take the students' message seriously.

"I think it's fabulous that these kids are learning some good life lessons about financial reality at an early age," she said. "And they're dealing with that reality in the best way possible: Think of a solution for the situation instead of just worrying about it. We need that creativity."

Board members have agreed to ask property owners to approve a $48 yearly fee for the use of school recreational facilities. The measure would generate an estimated $3.26 million a year to maintain ball fields and other facilities, freeing other funds for classroom needs.

The district also placed on its Web site a form for users to suggest other cost-cutting measures. Among the roughly 75 suggestions received: Shortening the school week from five days to four, reducing maintenance on school grounds and recycling more to save trash costs.

In the Santiago Hills classroom, the students are still calling companies to solicit donations to cover the cost of printing and mailing 1,000 copies of their fliers and posting a hundred posters at schools around the district.

The students compiled information on how many schools are in the county and computed that if they all followed their suggestion, the savings could reach half a billion dollars a year.

"They got ambitious," Phelps said. "They'll be tackling the state next."

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