Skydiving into Sustainability: Reshaping the culture in a school to improve a community today and into the future

Students gather on the corner to discuss their finding about the neighborhood with a community partn
Jen shares her thoughts on EFS and the Shelburne Farms program Healthy Neighborhoods/Healthy Kids.

Skydiving into Sustainability: Reshaping the culture in a school to improve
a community today and into the future

by Jen Cirillo

Healthy Neighborhoods/Healthy Kids is a project of Shelburne Farms'Sustainable Schools Project (SSP).  It was developed in partnership with VT Smart Growth.

As I walked down the stairs, the smell of pizza and the sound of children’s voices filled my senses. My first sight was of the mylar balloons that clung to the ceiling and thick winter jackets hanging on the back of every chair. I had never imagined myself in the basement of the St. John’s Club. But this was no ordinary Wednesday night. Surely the zero degree temperatures were common, the wind whipping off the lake too; but a group of 10 year olds presenting at a city meeting was unique.

The group of fourth and fifth graders bellied up to the bar for Shirley Temples and nervous chatter. “Are there going to be TV cameras tonight?” “Are they going to ask us questions?” “What if I start laughing?”

“Just imagine you are talking to a group of your peers. You know more about the neighborhood than most people, don’t worry—you’ll be great.” This wasn’t the first time I had given this advice. Four other groups of students had presented their stories in previous weeks; at citywide town meetings, neighborhood planning assemblies, and a special presentation to the mayor.

As the meeting got started the students were invited to come to the front of the room. They seemed so small under the fluorescent lights with the stark white backdrop! Sachi, a quiet fifth grader, stepped forward and began, “We are students from Champlain Elementary School. We graded our neighborhoods to see if they are safe and healthy. We focused on green spaces, recreational opportunities, safe streets, and cleanliness.”

“We like that there are places to play in our community—the park and the beach to go to in the summer.” Kayla said.

“We want new sidewalks and more speed bumps, because sometimes people go too fast and it is not safe for us to walk to school.” Jesse added.

“Yeah, the sidewalks are all cracked and someone could trip and really hurt themselves—like my grandma.” Casey chimed in.

The neighborhood group listened intently, some nodding in agreement, others taking notes. Their official presentation ended but this was when the real show started. I was amazed at how the eight students fielded questions from community members and at how completely they were engaged in the dialogue that followed. I was refreshed to see youth actively involved in city decision-making. They were creative, articulate, and passionate.

The reason for the Wednesday gathering was to bring people together to focus on neighborhood improvement priorities, specifically in this south-side community. Every year the city of Burlington offers Community Development Block Grants to fund neighborhood improvements. Each ward has the opportunity to apply for these funds and the students had plenty of ideas about how to use the money. For the first time these students realized that they could impact how adults were going to spend “their” money and they were sure of one thing – their voices needed to be heard. “We need a new basketball court!” “And a curvier and longer slide!”

In retrospect I am not sure who was running the meeting, the adults or the children. After the residents (parents, a city councilor, AmeriCorps*VISTA members, non-profit leaders, educators, senior citizens, and youth) brainstormed aspects of the neighborhood they liked and didn’t like, they came up with possible solutions to tackle the issues. Priorities included addressing the increasing amount of graffiti, insufficient and unsafe playground equipment, lack of respect for neighbors, and litter on the beach. “What are some ways we can make this place better, what are your ideas?” the facilitator prompted the crowd.

The 4/5th graders’ essential question to guide their work for the year is
“What can we do to make our community more sustainable?”

Students’ hands popped up – they had answers, they had been thinking about this in their classrooms. Beginning in September 4/5th graders began “researching” their community. They thought about what makes a neighborhood healthy and safe and what was important to youth. Early in the fall, after creating a community report card, they went out with parent volunteers to begin the hard work of assessing and assigning a grade to each neighborhood in their ward. Like their adult peers they identified what was and wasn’t safe and healthy in their neighborhood.

On a sunny October day, television cameras followed a gaggle of students as they made their way down Pine Street—an industrial/arts corridor in the south end—towards the King Street neighborhood. They filled out their report card, took pictures, made notes, and answered the reporters. “What do kids care about?” Students identified two outstanding aspects that they wanted to keep and enhance and three they would like to change to make their community safer and healthier. Their concerns ranged from increasing crime to lack of things for kids to do. They loved certain parks and the recreational opportunities afforded by the lake.

But now what? Who cared about their work besides their teachers? Throughout the process several students asked me, “Why are we doing this?” “Who is going to listen to a bunch a kids?” I thought about the countless times I had heard that very statement – but from adults. It is so easy to feel disenfranchised – that you are just one person working against the masses. It turns out a lot of people care about what these students are saying. Their first audience was the mayor, who listened to their thoughts and answered their questions. “How much money do we have to raise to get a stop light in our neighborhood?” “What are taxes and what do they pay for?” “Who can we call about our sidewalks?” The mayor answered each question, spending about an hour with the 85 fourth and fifth graders. He told them about how important their work is for Burlington’s future and for other communities around the world. Having recently returned from a trip to the sister city of Nishinomia, Japan, he told them what kids there were doing to make their community better. Their faces lit up to think of kids thousands of miles away doing the same thing.

Sitting with other community members, these students seemed like veteran neighborhood activists. They had written letters stating their concerns, asked how to get funding and who to talk to next: They had learned the complex process of community development. Now they were ready to act. Following the Wednesday night’s prioritization of issues, the neighborhood—with the students’ input—is applying for funds to improve their community. Understanding that the process will take quite some time, the students wait with anticipation to see if their improvement projects will be funded. Perhaps new playground equipment, an annual community picnic, and a public art wall are in store—they’ll know this spring!

It is funny to think that this moment in the basement of the St. John’s Club is why I decided to teach. I want to help youth see what took me eighteen years to get to. Talking to others about the great work that these students are doing caused me to reflect on my own education and experience. I recognized that I didn’t know that I could effect change, let alone how, until I was in college. Fortunately I got to that point—some never do. The only problem was that I didn’t have the skills to go off and try to change the world, so I marched off to Nicaragua to “help” and felt like a failure when I couldn’t stop or change the countless inequalities and environmental disasters I had learned about. I had jumped out of the plane without my parachute. I only listened to what my heart was telling me and reacted. As an adult I can look back and see what I could have done.

What I should have had in my parachute is what I hope I am facilitating in schools now. As the coordinator of the Sustainable Schools Project, I imagine what this world will be like if these fourth and fifth graders are nurtured and empowered throughout their education. I work with teachers to ensure students continue building a sense of self through investigating their community (both human and natural), develop an understanding of the interconnectedness of the world and know that they can make a difference. Such students will be the future leaders of their community who know how to care for the environment, build a vibrant local economy, and to provide for all now and into the future.

Now imagine what the world would look like if all students experienced education in this way. (Close your eyes and let yourself dream). That is my hope—and the promise of Education for Sustainability.

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