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Learning Matters: Going from picking up trash to sustaining careers

For the decade during which our now adult children promoted from sixth grade, I helped with the post-ceremony receptions hosted by PTA for the students and parents.

We served a lot of punch and cupcakes in those high-enrollment days.

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Each year, after the celebration ended and the crowd departed, a small group of volunteers faced a courtyard strewn with abandoned cups and napkins, and I came away with a renewed conviction that students should not graduate before learning (and teaching their parents) to pick up after themselves.

It’s a lesson many have yet to learn, judging by a glance at school venues following any of our high school graduations — or, for that matter, most big events anywhere.

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I’ve added to my list of desired educational outcomes (beyond academic proficiencies) since those days.

With the growing awareness of our limited natural resources, I’d include an understanding of and commitment to the broader fundamentals of environmental sustainability: reduction, reuse, and recycling.

Indeed, many individuals and groups in our schools have focused efforts on such goals, from Cub Scouts and Brownies to Associated Student Bodies and the board of education, which has from time to time modified its practices to encourage environmental responsibility.

But still our students grow up in schools where separating trash from recyclables is left mostly to the district’s waste haulers.

These days, focusing as I have on career education, I’ve been wondering more urgently about students’ career choices. Who’s going to preserve our planet? Who among this generation of students will fix the landscape we’ve left them?

With many students imagining careers in filmmaking or “developing an app,” (then selling it and getting rich), who’s inspiring students to design and build water reclamation or transit systems? Who’s helping them appreciate the food we eat and what it takes to bring it to our tables? Who will build environmentally sensible housing?

Such were the concerns that drew me to the annual Green California Schools and Community Colleges Summit in Pasadena last month.

Along with presentations like “Love food not waste,” “How teaching green increases learning opportunities,” and “A service learning program changing the face of stormwater management at school sites,” I heard a keynote address from Sharon Danks, founder of Green Schoolyards America.

With photos of “living schoolyards” so different than many of our asphalt playgrounds, Danks, an environmental city planner, spoke of children’s happiness as a design goal that could also benefit community stormwater goals, provide sun protection and inspire environmental literacy.

As stated in the summit program book, “Since 1999, her professional work and passion have focused on transforming school grounds into vibrant public spaces that reflect and enhance local ecology, engage the community and nurture children as they learn and play.”

Following the summit, I decided to revisit some of the schools that I know have gardens, to see how their projects are going and find out who among the staff and parents harbored goals like Dank’s.

So far, I’ve touched base with three schools and the passionate individuals leading their greening efforts.

At Franklin Elementary International Foreign Language Academy Magnet, I wanted to see the landscaping for which parents had lobbied back when I served on the Glendale Unified school board.

They’d wanted to make sure that the new building, constructed with funds from the 2011 Measure S school bond, would allow for more trees and garden areas than were customary in school design.

On this visit, I saw those parents’ efforts had borne fruit. The beauty of the schoolyard cheered me, with native trees and drought-tolerant plants defining the play areas.

As hoped, the garden area has become an outdoor laboratory, where all students gain exposure to plants, dirt and butterflies.

At Allen Daily High School, situated next to the school district headquarters, I had a chance to speak briefly with Antonia Piscitelli-Carrasco, a teacher in the Environmental Futures Academy.

She was on her way to a meeting but took the time to convey her hopes for transplanting the student-maintained garden if the district’s plan to sell its offices — including the garden — goes through.

Established several years ago with considerable support from community groups, the garden was designed to create an environmental studies option for Daily students.

Piscitelli-Carrasco looks forward to expanding that option, whatever the outcome or timeline of the proposed sale.

My third visit was to Roosevelt Middle School, which has been aiming to establish an environmental science magnet to complement its already expanded offerings, which include robotics, NASA and MESA (Mathematics, Engineering & Science Achievement) programs, visual and performing arts, and instruction in Spanish, Italian and German.

I was fortunate to meet Janet Goldsbury, who came to Roosevelt three years ago to teach German and now teaches four subjects: German, math, gardening, and stage band — soon to include a drum circle.

When I spoke with her, she had met that morning with parents interested in helping students build a garden. With some grants already in the works, she’s planning for more. Stay tuned for a vibrant space that reflects and enhances local ecology, engages the community and nurtures students.

Goldsbury’s vision goes way beyond encouraging students to pick up trash.

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