Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

High Point students bring shades of ‘green’ to county schools

Officials say upsurge in environmental activism has been incorporated into curriculum

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High Point High School students are placing recycling bins in every corner of the school and joining environmentalist rallies in Annapolis. Robert Goddard Montessori students have helped stop soil erosion, and Oxon Hill High School activists are lecturing peers on climate change.

Environmental concerns have sparked a host of after-school clubs and an infusion of environmental components in the curriculum in Prince George’s County schools.

‘‘People think that all environmental activists are just tree huggers, but it’s not like that,” said Oxon Hill senior Dominique Hazzard, 17, co-director of the school’s Sierra Student Coalition, which hosts environmental workshops and lobbies state lawmakers. ‘‘... We want to show that high school students, African Americans and all types of people care about the environment.”

John Neville, the county’s supervisor of environmental education, has seen his share of spikes and lulls in student environmental concern since he joined the school system in 1976. In recent years, as green causes have become more popular, Neville said schools have seen a jump in environmentally conscious students.

‘‘I look at it as a more practical return to core values that people take under their wing to find the best way to live their lives,” said Neville, the administrator at the William S. Schmidt Environmental Education Center in Brandywine. ‘‘It’s very encouraging.”

Instead of creating classes entirely devoted to environmental education, Neville said Prince George’s has included environmental content in almost every aspect of the school day. For example, a vocabulary lesson may use sentences that address current environmental issues like climate change. Social studies classes include political debates on how to best solve environmental issues, Neville said.

‘‘We want to let the students make up their own mind and decide how important the issue is to them,” he said. Bringing environmental context to more classes, Neville said, has become a focal point in the last two years as student have shown a renewed interest in the issues.

High school students inspired by their green lessons have begun to track environmental legislation in their after-school clubs. On Jan. 17, 10 High Point students rallied in support of proposed state laws that could bolster energy efficiency throughout the state and cut back on pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

‘‘It is refreshing to see them involved and willing to be civic-minded and to worry about the future,” said Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Dist. 21) of College Park. ‘‘It’s wonderful to see that they care.”

Environmental components are woven into some elementary and middle school curricula. At Robert Goddard Montessori, a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school in Seabrook, students created a rain garden on school grounds after teachers noticed severe soil runoff caused by the rain.

‘‘We’re fortunate that our school tends to attract families that are more environmentally conscious,” said Tracy Gross, a Goddard teacher and member of the student-parent-teacher ‘‘green team,” which discusses and addresses environmental issues. ‘‘The students definitely take those [lessons] home with them.”

Oxon Hill High School’s 20-member Sierra Student Coalition hosted an environmental symposium last month for more than 100 Prince George’s students at Oxon Hill High. The forum was part of ‘‘Focus the Nation,” an environmental awareness movement that culminated Jan. 31 with thousands of symposiums across the country.

Coalition members also hosted a short presentation on global warming. Hazzard and her classmates gave a similar presentation — highlighting global warming’s dangers and solutions — at a January meeting of Prince George’s student government groups at Suitland High School.

‘‘A lot of people just don’t know [about global climate change], and we want to fix that,” Hazzard said.

School officials are also going green.

On the first day of this school year, county Superintendent John E. Deasy announced all 141 county elementary schools would participate in the school system’s ‘‘Litter Free Schools” program, which encourages students to recycle paper. In the next two school years, the program will be expanded to include Prince George’s middle and high schools, Neville said.

On Jan. 30, central administrative offices joined the cause, placing recycling bins in buildings like the Sasscer Administration Building in Upper Marlboro.

Suitland Elementary School, which opened in the 2006-2007 school year, was built with features that will save the school $9,150 annually in energy costs. A new Laurel-Beltsville area elementary school, slated to open in the 2008-2009 academic year, includes a geothermal heating and cooling system. The $30 million school received Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, a green building rating system designed by the U.S. Green Building Council.

A new Oxon Hill High School, expected to be finished by August 2010, will also be LEED certified, officials said.

At a community forum in Laurel last May, Deasy told local leaders and school officials that incorporating green technology in new buildings would convey the importance of environmental responsibility.

‘‘What an important message to send to our youth,” Deasy said.

E-mail Dennis Carter at