During this June graduation season, the Environmental Charter High School (ECHS
) festivities featured a particularly potent commencement speaker: U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis.
ECHS was one of six finalists
(from more than 1,000 applications) in a national competition to have President Obama give the commencement address. Despite narrowly missing out to president, they received perhaps the more passionate speaker — Secretary Solis.
A seasoned environmental advocate herself (she received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2000), Solis is a native of Southern California. And like ECHS, Solis achieved greatness despite her less-than-ideal conditions growing up. She was the third of seven siblings of immigrant parents from Nicaragua and Mexico.
Despite a tiny, humble size (450 students) and urban-backwater location (Lawndale, Calif.), ECHS boasts one of the most visionary environmental campuses in the nation.The ECHS campus was designed as an interconnected system based on the principles of permaculture.
Campus features include: rainwater catchment systems, fruit-tree “vending machines,” organic gardens that supplement student lunches, an outdoor amphitheater made of recycled concrete, natural-material cobb benches, seasonal campus stream and wetlands, living fences, a bicycle workshop, composting and vermiculture (worm) stations, multi-material recycling collection points, biodiesel refinery, student-created murals, a floating laboratory buoyed by discarded plastic soda bottles, and a tour guided by student docents — all in an ultra-urbanized region of south Los Angeles.
Besides a rigorous traditional academic curriculum, all ECHS students become familiar with environmental science, hands-on principles in sustainable living, and an extended learning outdoor education trip each year.
ECHS also hosts a “Green Ambassadors” program, which trains students in become young environmental community leaders. Their mission is “to educate and motivate youth, inspiring them to set a green example in their communities through open idea exchange and social action.” The Green Ambassadors were featured in Sundance Channels first season of the eco-doc series Big Ideas for a Small Planet.
ECHS also is ranked in top 3 percent of public high schools by U.S. News and World Report, received the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Award, and the California Department of Education Service-Learning Award.
During her speech, Solis recounted how a high school guidance counselor recommended that she “was not college material” and should “become a secretary like her older sister.” She followed his advice — becoming the first female Hispanic senior cabinet member in U.S. history.
Following in her footsteps, the Environmental Charter High School has also propelled itself from obscure origins to becoming a role model of environmental leadership, service and literacy.