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Earth Day Interview: Eco-Education with the Sustainability Academy

TeachHUB Interview


Green School InterviewA Vermont magnet school is taking Earth Day ideals to the next level. The Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes is one of the first schools in the country to integrate sustainability education throughout their curriculum.


Anne Tewksbury, a sustainability coach at the Burlington K-5 magnet school, gives us the inside scoop on this eco-friendly school.


What is the overall goal of the Academy?


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The goal of the academy is to educate and empower students to improve the quality of life for all - economically, socially, and environmentally-now and for future generations."


How did this idea and new school mission come to be?


The idea of The Sustainability Academy (SA) was born several years ago when Shelburne Farms, our now community partner, began supporting teachers here with curriculum development in educating for sustainability. 


During this time, a citywide conversation had been happening around socio-economic integration for the two high poverty elementary schools in Burlington’s Old North End section.  Free and reduced lunch percentages in the other four elementary schools in the city were all lower than 50%, while the percentage in the two schools in the Old North End were nearly 100%. 


The school board and the task force appointed to study the issues recommended a plan for socio-economic integration that would include turning the two high poverty schools into magnet schools, so as to attract more families from across the city and even out the percentages of free and reduced lunches. Because we had already done work with our curriculum with sustainability, it was a natural fit for us.  The other elementary school became a school for arts integration.


Earth Day Interview: Eco-Education with the Sustainability AcademyHow has the school community come together to support the sustainability mission?


The school community of parents, neighbors, community friends and businesses have all come together to help us to realize our mission in this our third year of being a magnet school. 


We presently have a Stewardship team, made up of all of the above, and this group helps to support and guide the school through its mission.  In addition, we have a faculty leadership team, which addresses the essential questions of how we can further our practices in sustainability, and a close knit faculty that is part of all the changes the school elects to go through.


Was it difficult for your school community to adjust to your new mission? Howso?


In some ways it was such a natural fit for us here at SA to become a magnet school, that is was not a difficult journey.  In other ways, it has been a journey full of both celebrations and challenges. 


We began our journey with a wonderful, passionate group of teachers who wanted to get it right from Day One.  They were very tough on themselves and self critical when they didn’t understand how to do all the things they felt they should be doing in a population where 25% of the student body are children whose first language was not English, and each classroom has several students on IEPs and with behavior challenges.


We have now integrated all of our units of study with sustainability, which means each  unit reflects the economic, equity, and environmental pillars sustainability represents. Each grade level practices place based education, service learning, and project based learning throughout their year.  Each has a year long essential question that guides their classroom through learning about sustainability.


Do any individual moments or stories stand out from your sustainability efforts/the transition?

During our first year of being an academy, parents and community members, along with students, build a rock garden complete with benches and space for perennials and annuals.  Within  few short weeks the garden was badly vandalized, but community friends and students immediately moved to repair it. Third grade students responded with this statement:  "Whoever did this must have been really sad that they did not have a garden as nice as ours.  No matter how many times they knock this down, we will just rebuild it."


Earth Day Interview: Eco-Education with the Sustainability AcademyHow is sustainability built into the curriculum?


Sustainability is the lens through which we teach.  In the beginning years we integrated sustainability into social studies through a curriculum called, “Healthy Neighborhoods, Healthy Kids,” which is a program  for student civic participation in their neighborhood and city. 


We moved into looking at our curriculum in a more global fashion, by developing essential questions and big idea strategies as we looked at or work, thus  creating more integrated work across the curriculum in each grade level that is aligned with the Vermont Standards.   


Now in our third year of being a magnet school, we have moved beyond the integration of sustainability into social studies and science only, to integrating it throughout our curriculum.


What kind of sustainable resources/initiatives do you have on campus?


As far as resources in sustainability, we now have solar panels and a soon-to-be-installed kiosk which will help us to measure energy used in the building. 


We have a large collection of geo-therm wells in our back playground, which keeps incoming water at a moderate temperature as it comes into the school. 


We have a state of the art food service program, connected as we are to the Farm-to-School Program, where 25-30% of our food is locally grown.  Nearly 100% of our food is prepared on site, and we cater to children who are vegetarians, as well as those who are having a hard time changing cultures and food preferences.


We have a large and resourceful group of parents and community members who are spearheading change in our school landscape, and several community partners who both share their resources and support us in our new projects.


Earth Day Interview: Eco-Education with the Sustainability AcademyHow do teaching practices differ between the Sustainability Academy and a public school?


The teaching practices at SA differ than other schools because our staff threads sustainability throughout the units of study.  A large percentage of our non-fiction reading centers around the themes of social justice, the environment, making a difference, and even business. 


Teachers connect the math skills throughout their units, and revolve most of their social studies and science work around sustainability.  Their curriculums are rich and varied, providing for accommodations throughout. 


Here at the SA, there are fewer and fewer isolated subjects and units taught in isolation.  Studies revolve around real world issues and problems, starting from the very youngest student to the oldest in the school.


How would a new student find their day-to-day school life different than at your typical public school?


The biggest change for students is that they have developed an awareness of what sustainability is, how each and every one of them has a responsibility to help be agents of change, and that their ideas and their voices matter. 


There are multiple opportunities for them to be involved in campus activities and mini-clubs that focus on some of the different aspects of sustainability, such as using and recycling products at breakfasts, being responsible citizens, recycling and composting, stewardship of the building, grounds, and neighborhood, and conversations on diversity.


Earth Day Interview: Eco-Education with the Sustainability AcademyWhat is the biggest change you’ve seen in your students?

The biggest change we have seen in our students is in their interest in their own learning, the connections they are making to the real world,and their confidence in making the world a better place.Due to their multi-cultural environment they have the opportunity to become citizens of the world and advocates for others.  They spend more and more time outdoors in learning, and are becoming more connected to nature.  They have opportunities to practice service learning and to learn within projects.They have become more confident writers and speakers and are given the opportunities to use these skills in a real world context.


What has been the most difficult adjustment for the teachers?


 The most difficult adjustment for teachers, I would say, has been adjusting to a new curriculum, embracing the ever changing landscape of education, such as the Common Core, helping ELL students and students with special academic and behavioral needs, along with embracing the integration of all the components of sustainability.


Teachers here have all elected to stay at SA, and are constantly working to connect with families, afterschool and evening events, enriching their curriculum, attending professional development opportunities in sustainability, literacy, math, and new practices in the field, and how to integrate them into a school focused on sustainability. 


It’s embracing and integrating the new while continuing to focus on the old, and how to marry the two.


Earth Day Interview: Eco-Education with the Sustainability AcademyWhat has been the most difficult adjustment for the students?


I do not think there has been a difficult adjustment for students.  What student cannot get their head around real world work, instead of an essay to nowhere, a math project in a book, and work that is separate and organized in subjects that doesn’t make any difference.


What student cannot get excited about learning when given the opportunity to follow their passions and find a way to have their voices heard?  What student can turn down the opportunity to speak at a university, travel to a different school help change their playground, and have part of those decisions rest with themselves?  Our school is a powerful place for active learning, and the student involvement and excitement around learning shows this every day.


Share you school's sustainability efforts in the comments section!

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