February 25, 2020

PBS Features Schools’ Growing Eco Awareness

At a Harvard University dormitory, a banner proclaims, “Green Is the New Crimson.”

At Patuxent Elementary School in Upper Marlboro, Md., the motto is “No child left inside.”

Largely under the radar of the general public, a movement has spread across the country’s schools. It will get its due in the PBS special “Growing Greener Schools,” airing on KCET Sunday at 10:30 p.m., the run-up to a weeklong celebration marking the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.

There are different approaches among the more than 1,000 schools participating in the greening program and the communities that support their efforts, but they share some key features.

• Weaving environmental awareness into all academic subjects from kindergarten through 12th grade. As a simple example, in an early math class, the teacher might ask, “If it takes four gallons of water to flush a toilet, how much water do we use in 12 flushes?”

• Designing new school buildings, or retrofitting old ones, to substantially reduce pollution and cut the $6 billion in total energy costs at all American schools. Giving students more natural light through larger and correctly placed windows.

• Getting students and teachers out of the classroom and into the dirt by planting vegetable gardens and creating “edible schoolyards.” The harvest goes to the school cafeteria to replace fatty and nonorganic foods. Leftovers are recycled to make compost.

• Designing curricula to prepare students for jobs in a greener world.

Greening schools not only makes for slimmer students, but also more aware citizens, closer teacher-student relationships and higher scholastic achievements, say advocates of the program.

At the Lawndale charter school, located in an “underserved” community, 95 percent of its students go on to college or university, said Alison Suffet-Diaz, founder of the school and a Jewish transplant from Brooklyn.

One of her students, Cindy Linares, said that after taking the green curriculum, “I’m not as selfish as I was before. When you learn about the global issues that are happening around you, it really opens your eyes to see that the world doesn’t revolve around you or your school.”

Besides the Lawndale charter school, Santa Monica College has been cited as one of the leading green educational institutions in the country.

The film’s creators — Harry Wiland, who is Jewish, and Dale Bell, who isn’t — are veteran filmmakers and executives who co-founded the Media & Policy Center in Santa Monica 11 years ago.

They have made several films for PBS, but their projects go well beyond delivering the finished product in a can.

For the green schools project, they have developed a 175-page companion book and teacher guide, organized town hall meetings, and, in general, built a sense of community participation.

Wiland, who grew up in Brooklyn, and Bell, who grew up in suburban New York City, both credit the examples of tikkun olam they absorbed in their childhood homes for their continuing concern for the environment and the welfare of today’s children.

“My mother was a kind of community organizer and, when I was 12, she took me to visit a hospital for children with incurable diseases,” Wiland said. “That made an impression on me that I’ve never forgotten.”

Bell, although not Jewish, noted that he spent a good part of his youth in the all-Jewish Catskill Mountains environment. “I always have been suffused in Judaism,” he reminisced.

The two men see one more far-reaching benefit in what students learn in green schools. “When the kids come home, they are so turned on, they often convert their parents to a green lifestyle,” Wiland said.

The Media & Policy Center operates on an annual budget ranging from $650,000 to $1 million and gets almost its entire support from foundations.

The program airs on PBS stations nationally during April in honor of Earth Day.  For program information, check local listings. For more information on the school programs, visit www.growinggreenerschools.org or www.mediapolicycenter.org.