Kids’ laughter and footsteps echo down the hallways as they make their way into classrooms for the start of the school day. In many ways, it’s a scene being played out in schools across America — except for one key difference.
This is Seven Generations Charter School, a kindergarten-through-4th-grade elementary school in Emmaus, Pa., that opened in 2009 — one of many green charter schools popping up across the country.
Housed in a refurbished 19th-century brick silk mill — complete with the original wood floors and classrooms outfitted with salvaged windows and doors — Seven Generations offers its nearly 200 students a research-based curriculum called EIC, or Environment as an Integrating Context for learning. The idea involves using nature and the environment as a teaching tool for everything from math to reading to history.
“Our charter says we’re aiming to create stewards of the environment and each other,” says academic director Molly Watson. “We believe that kids learn by doing, so you’ll see much less of the teacher standing up front pouring information into a passive receptacle.”
A nearby pond, for instance, offers not only a daily real-life science lesson on the lifecycles of pond creatures, but also serves as a muse for creative-writing exercises (write about the nature sounds you hear) and inspiration for papier-mâché critters in art class.
Seven Generations also relies on students’ green-building expertise. Second-graders, for instance, just finished a unit on resources and waste and are now developing a school recycling program. Next up: Students will design and maintain an organic garden, which will provide food for lunches, and may begin investigating the feasibility of installing solar panels.
“I think kids are capable of a lot more than we give them credit for,” says Watson.
Growing charter school movement
Nationwide, there are now at least 200 green charter schools and dozens more looking to move in that direction, says Jim McGrath, president of the two-year-old Green Charter Schools Network in Madison, Wis. Charter schools receive public money, but are given creative license to try things differently in exchange for producing certain academic results.
To be categorized as “green,” GCSN requires schools to offer an EIC curriculum on a regular basis, implement green and healthy school practices, encourage stewardship and service learning projects, and form partnerships and networks with other green schools and organizations.
Green education is so hot, in fact, that the group is planning the first Green Schools National Conference in Minneapolis this October.
The notion that nature plays a key role in boosting brain function and emotional and physical health has been around for awhile — recently popularized by Richard Louv’s 2005 book, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Kids from Nature-Deficit-Disorder." McGrath admits that more research is needed to determine whether nature actually nurtures extreme school success, but anecdotally at least, he’s convinced it does.
Take the inner-city students at the Environmental Charter High School in Los Angeles, for example: “About 85 to 90 percent go on to college,” he says. “Normally the dropout rate would be tremendous.
“On a national basis,” he adds, “it seems like many [green charter schools] have the highest scores in their states. Plus, they’re creating students who are problem solvers and critical thinkers who can work with other people.”
In other words, don’t be surprised when an army of savvy green change-agents is unleashed on the world, ready to flex their eco-muscles everywhere from corporate boardrooms to the halls of Congress.
And if Seven Generations School is any indication, it may happen sooner rather than later. Remember that pond study? According to Watson, when students recently noticed trash and habitat destruction nearby, they decided to take action by penning letters to the mayor (part of a language-arts assignment!), asking him to install “Please Protect the Pond” signs. They delivered the letters in person, and within a week the signs were in place.
“There was a real need in town — the students identified it, researched it, and took action,” says Watson. “When they graduate we expect to have kids who understand the power they have and that they can make a difference.”