Calif. High School Gives Kids Hands-On Environmental Education

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“Most high school kids have trouble with education because it’s not relevant to them and their experiences and their lives,” Alison Diaz, founder and executive director of Environmental Charter High School, tells Natural Vitality Kids. “I think the main part of finding a school or creating a school is you want to develop and build schools that get kids interested in meaningful and authentic issues.” 

When you actually see the results of connecting education to the real world in the students themselves, you realize just how on point Alison is in her observation. It also helps to explain why the school she founded— Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale, California—has been such an outstanding success. Of the approximately 450 students, 80 percent are financially disadvantaged; but 95 percent of those graduating exceed the admission requirements of California state universities.

Environmental Charter High School

“When you talk to students about issues clearly visible in the environment, things become relevant very quickly,” Alison continues. “We’re having kids look at such matters, examine best practices that already exist, and discover what they can do to implement a best practice or come up with a solution that hasn’t already been implemented. Doing so provides a landscape in which they can take action and make measurable differences. When they do this, they’re empowered and they want to do it more. They have a reason for learning their course subjects.”

A charter school is a public school operating independently of a district board of education—in effect, a one-school public school district. A group of people—educators, parents, community leaders, educational entrepreneurs, and others—come together and write the charter plan describing the school’s guiding principles, governance structure, and applicable accountability measures. If the state approves the charter, the state funds the school on a per pupil basis. Because they are schools of choice, they are held to the highest level of accountability—consumer demand.

And the consumers are demanding: each year, 300 prospective students apply for the 100 new slots available at ECHS.

Bringing It About

It certainly wasn’t an easy road getting the school up and running—but Alison was determined. “Back in the late ’90s when we started, financial barriers were extremely difficult to starting a charter school,” she explains. “The start-up funding that we received from the state was about $100,000. Today charter funding is about $600,000, so you can see there’s a significant difference.”

When founded in 1999, the school began in a church location, but it started growing almost immediately. They added temporary portable buildings, and then found additional space down the street in an old-time radio museum. Soon that wasn’t enough space either, but by that time the school had built a solid reputation with excellent academic results, which qualified them for an official school district site. They were able to obtain a former elementary school campus, which they leased for 50 years—their location to this day.

From the beginning, Alison focused on the relevance of the education. “Kids want to feel like they’re important,” she says. “Kids have a lot of time and energy to do things, so at the upper grade levels it’s pretty easy for them to be empowered in that way. Once they go up to college and come back, they’re coming back into their own communities with those skills to make change happen and to improve their environment and their community.

“The reason behind doing what we’re doing is that you can’t just tell somebody to do it. A student has to understand the problem and what the solution is or what the solutions could be. As we develop new ideas and new technologies, the problems are still the same but we’re coming up with better solutions along the way, and the kids go through the process of developing those solutions.”

Green Ambassador Program

Student hands-on involvement with the community is a vital part of this education, and the school’s Green Ambassador Program exemplifies this involvement. The award-winning program is a class as well as an after-school club and extracurricular program, which teaches about environmental issues facing the planet and challenges participants to find solutions and strategies to address them. Students learn about green alternatives such as systems thinking, composting, water conservation, and organic food production.

The students then use what they have learned to put on events that inspire their communities to become part of these solutions. These “earth positive” events are advertised in local calendars and on community bulletin boards, and parents, peers, and neighbors are all invited. The events include how-to films, photo exhibits, marketing materials, and games. Green Ambassadors fundraise by selling environmentally sound products such as canteens, composters, and reusable bags.

Green Ambassadors are also trained to work with representatives from newspapers, television stations, and other media and learn how to write press releases and blogs.

“High schools have a traditional college preparatory curriculum; you go to your math class and learn math and go to your science class and learn science,” Alison points out. “At ECHS, you have to look in the real world when you examine problems. You have to look at the whole problem in the context of all disciplines in order to find solutions. And so we work in grade-level teams to expose kids to those issues and then to tackle those issues from a variety of disciplines. The Green Ambassador Program starts in tenth grade.”

The program has been so successful that ECHS last year taught ten other state of California public schools how to implement it. Five of those schools are now adopting it as a full year-long course, as ECHS does. Alison is looking for ten more schools to adopt the program this coming year—and seven have already signed up.

It Even Looks Different

If you walk onto a normal school campus today, especially in an economically depressed area, you’re likely to see graffiti, many students who don’t appear very happy to be there, and school police regularly patrolling the area.

Walking onto the ECHS campus is the polar opposite—and it’s noticeable immediately. There are plants and fruit trees everywhere you look, donated by various nurseries and charities and cared for by the student body. They are also used in the school curriculum—but the favorite use is as “free vending machines”; these blackberries, snap peas, tomatoes, and endless other crop varieties serve as between-meal and between-class snacks for students and faculty alike.

There is the “urbanite” amphitheater. Urbanite is concrete that has been repurposed instead of being disposed of—in this case, concrete that once covered the school ground from one end to the other. Some of it was turned into large rough concrete steps for amphitheater seating, and more of it became the bed for the “river” that now channels rainwater, hosts plentiful life forms, and divides the school.

Instead of graffiti, the school walls are covered with environmental murals, such as the large tree covering the wall of one building, hand-painted logos of colleges the students are targeting to attend, and illustrations of the symbology of the main programs the students will progress through while they’re here. Slogans such as “Be your own superhero” are the only written words you’ll see on outside surfaces.In several places around the campus are trash receptacles—except there are three in each location: one for landfill, one for recycling, and one for composting.

Hearing from the Students

The real tale for any school, however, is told in the students. There are numerous videos on the ECHS website with student testimonials of various kinds, but there’s nothing like getting it firsthand.

Click on any image above to see a larger version.

Keira Adams has just turned fifteen, and she is a tenth-grade student at ECHS. She is bright, happy, animated, and interested—something you see far too little of in schools these days. She talks about the differences between the school she came from and this one. “Here they relate it back to the real world instead of teaching math like `two plus two is four.’ In here they teach you, ‘This is how you buy a car using the math that we taught you. This is how you buy a house. This is how you apply to college. This is how you apply for financial aid’—different things that will help you later in life instead of teaching you just the math thing. It will help us beyond high school.”

She finds the teaching style different as well. “I like how it is easy to talk to our teachers if we have problems. I used to hesitate to ask my teacher questions, but here the teachers are cool. I can just ask them anything if I need help and I know that they will help me.”

The school methods seem to have resulted in a social difference as well. “My favorite thing is that the seniors are not hating the freshmen and talking them down,” Keira says. “I was a freshman last year, and the seniors were like, ‘We are all here together.’ We’re just friends going to the same school instead of separate classes all hating each other.”

Her favorite subject? “I love my environmental science class,” Keira relates. “Learning about the things that go on in our outside world that we just don’t really pay attention to. It’s as if I have a different set of eyes looking at something. If I see sprinklers, I’m thinking I want to go and turn them off. Why are they wasting the water on the concrete? I saw that today; it was just crazy. I was wondering, why are they doing this? It just helps me think differently about how I’ll act. And it makes you be less selfish because you’re thinking about how you affect the whole world and how the world affects you, and how you can work together.”

Keira also very much enjoys being a Green Ambassador. “I liked that event we put on because I felt as if I was a manager or some big important person. We had to dress professionally and present in front of the community; parents, donors, sponsors, and various organizations come to see us speak.”

Jordan Howard graduated last year and is eventually making her way to the esteemed Howard University in Washington, DC. She enjoys laughing over the fact that, at the time she started at ECHS, she was not interested in anything having to do with the environment. “I thought about the green movement as something extreme and unattainable if you wanted to live a regular lifestyle,” Jordan tells Natural Vitality Kids. “I was really resistant and a complaining child at the beginning of my freshman year. I was the only bold one in class who would argue to the teacher that global warming was fake and climate change wasn’t real. I was a real pain for teachers.”

That all changed in Jordan’s second year at ECHS. “In my sophomore year I made the switch when I took a class called Green Ambassadors. It was solution based, and I learned that in the past I was resistant because I was only fed one side of the story on climate change. Every time I would hear about it, it was always the negative effects. If it was from TV, Internet or radio, if someone was environmentally friendly or eco-conscious, it would be some crazy extremist. In that class I learned that the solutions are real, that we can actually save this world. We have the solutions for almost all the environmental problems but we’re just not using them. I realized that the reason I was resisting was because I wasn’t educated. When I started getting educated I began living with the solutions; I began buying the solutions at the store and telling other people about them.”

ECHS’s hands-on approach to education is also what won Jordan over. “It wasn’t just in the Green Ambassadors’ class that we talked about solutions,” she says. “In all our classes, we talked about different social injustices, we learned about the problems, but then we learned about the solutions. And they would tell us that it’s us: the solutions are really in our hands—the future is really in our hands; we have something to do with this information. They weren’t telling us this so that we could go home mad and angry; they were telling us this so that we could go home and actually do something about it. And I think that in itself is key; even if you’re not an environmental person, you’re learning that you need to do something and can do something.”

Jordan certainly did. In her time at ECHS, she became a prominent speaker and leader. She opened for Hillary Clinton at “Angelenos Go Green for Obama,” a fundraiser for Barack Obama; she was featured on an episode of Discovery Channel’s Planet Green; she gave the keynote address at the City of Los Angeles’s Environmental Youth Conference; she was featured on Nickelodeon’s Big Green Help, and was one of a panel of four presenting at the 2009 Bioneers Conference about youth using various types of media to convey social and environmental messages.

Into the Future

Alison Diaz is parlaying the success of ECHS into making it available for more students. “We’ve been here for ten years, and we’re looking forward to our next ten years,” she says. “And on the eve of our tenth year we had our middle school approved to open.”

Up the line, following the middle school, Alison will also be opening an elementary school.

Teaching successively younger kids is part of Alison’s master plan. “We’re expanding into middle school because you want to be able to start younger,” she explains. “Middle school kids are maturing and have the opportunity to access technology in ways that years ago they weren’t able to. They’re ready and able to start taking action. And parents listen to their middle school kids and elementary school kids. When you have a little kid saying, ‘Don’t throw that away! It should go in a different bin,’ it becomes even more meaningful to the parents, too, to change their behavior. And that slowly builds out into their school communities and then the larger community.

The proof is in the results—and it’s that bottom line that keeps Alison motivated. “The students become inspired and they want to be part of the change,” she says. “We have different slogans on our walls that the kids help put up there; one of them is ‘Set any goal; be the change you want to see in the world.’ These are the things I see happening with our students; they are becoming capable of doing those things. That’s what continues to inspire me: seeing the children and what they’re able to do. It’s pretty amazing when you see what kids can do.”

Find out much more about Environmental Charter High School at their website: www.echsonline.org.