PS 31, PS 34, PS 110 and MS 126 are all part of NWF’s Eco-Schools USA, an educational sustainability program that teaches students about topics like energy, water, consumption and waste, healthy habits and more.
Liz Soper, director of K-12 education for the National Wildlife Federation, said this program has exceeded expectations.
“One of the most important aspects of what we witnessed in this program is the transformation of student learning and leadership,” she said. “It’s a student-driven program that helps them become environmental leaders in their community.”
Soper said students learn good habits like monitoring new recycling systems in the cafeteria and classroom, checking all electronics to make sure they power down and inspecting faucets to ensure they’re not leaking. Students have even participated in letter-writing campaigns for more recycling bins in their communities.
Since the launch of the Eco-Schools USA program in Greenpoint in 2015, the four schools have accomplished a lot, Soper said. Nearly 80 percent of school waste, combined, is now recycled or composted.
The schools have also significantly reduced their buildings’ carbon footprints and decreased energy use by nearly 10 percent.
The schools have also installed wildlife gardens, outdoor classrooms and other green spaces.
“It improves your indoor air quality by adding cleaner plants in the classrooms and eliminating toxic cleaning supplies,” Soper said. “Your schools are healthier.”
Outside of the school environment, students also worked with community organizations on a variety of green projects, such as installing new rainwater catchment systems and soil testing. They also went on field trips, including a canoe trip on Newtown Creek.
All of the projects are part of the program’s goal of integrating environmental activities to increase student engagement and academic achievement, Soper said.
“We really believe this type of education and experience is helping to prepare our students become the next generation of conservationists, scientists, engineers and more,” she said.
Meanwhile, more than 100 students have participated in a Green STEM after school club, where they learned about waste, water and wildlife.
“This is where students are using science and technology and math to engineer solutions to real-world problems,” Soper said. “They’re consistently engaged with the content, excited about learning and taking action to improve their local environment.”
Tina Wong, a sustainability coach at PS 34, said she works with students on projects, but she also works with teachers to infuse environmental sustainability into the curriculum.
The goal for sustainability coaches is that when they leave in December, the schools will be able to do this on their own.
“We understand that it’s not sustainable if we come in and do everything for them and leave,” Wong said. “What we do is empower them to be able to do this, even after we’re gone.”
Wong said it’s important for kids to learn about environmental sustainability because “it’s their future.” But she said students also learn other important lessons about speaking up, leadership and problem solving.
“Ideally, they would all grow up to care about the environment,” she said. “But on the side, they’re going to learn about communication, about standing up and having that voice, to question things.”
The Eco-Schools program, now in its third year, will finish in December. It was funded by a $1.75 million grant from the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund (GCEF).
At the celebration Monday morning at PS 110, students, teachers and staff from all four schools displayed some of their projects, including ones about recycling, cross-pollination and energy conservation.
Maya Pencakowski, a second grade student at PS 34, worked on a project about air quality and idling.
“If you leave your car on for more than 30 seconds when you’re not actually using your car, that’s called idling,” she said. “It makes the hole in the atmosphere bigger. It’s bad because a lot of pollution can cause asthma and can hurt our lungs.”
Lamont Jackson, also a second-grade student at PS 34, learned about the chemicals that are used in many cleaning supplies.
“I learned that some products, they are actually bad for the air,” Jackson said. “I think people should use the ones that have green-friendly labels that say they’re made natural.”
Fifth-grade students Zuzanna Nowicka and Mialee Grijalva worked on a team project that created robots out of LEGOs to clean up water contamination. They said they were inspired after learning about the massive oil spill in Greenpoint decades ago.
They worked on the project for eight weeks and met twice a week to finish it. Both Nowicka and Grijalva said they learned many life lessons along the way, especially about teamwork.
“We are all in this together,” Nowicka said. “Without anyone helping you, this wouldn’t be successful.”
“When we first started out, we didn’t know what these pieces were called,” Grijalva added. “But we learned and worked together as a team.”
According to Soper, only about 100 schools around the country, including 15 in New York, have achieved the Green Flag award. It takes a lot of commitment and hard work to attain the honor, she said.
“For your schools, this really was evident in everything you’ve done over the past several years. These accomplishments, to date, I hope, are only the beginning for your schools,” she said. “You’ve now joined the ranks of some of the greenest schools around the world.”