In a slightly different version, this article, by Rona Roberts, first appeared as "A Sustainable Resolution," in Nougat Magazine's January, 2007 issue.In mid-December I met six middle school science students who will not need to make New Year's resolutions. They have already changed the world.
Coached by extraordinary teachers like Lexington native Rebecca Self, these students from the Lexington-based Montessori Middle School of Kentucky presented a set of proposals to their school board for designing, building, and managing environmentally friendly school buildings and grounds.
The students, along with more than 50 of their peers, have already begun the investigation and hard work that will support future students' learning on more than 12 precious urban Bluegrass acres. Resolving to eat less or exercise more cannot compare.
Imagine middle school students growing and selling fresh apples, honey, strawberries, blackberries, carrots, kale, and more. Imagine a food production system on that land that benefits from careful composting, conservation, and recycling. Imagine students excited about all this work and patient enough to carry it out wisely.
Both excitement and reasoning powered the MMSK students as they presented their findings and recommendations to their school board. The students described a school that does not just teach health in a classroom; the school building and its grounds become a daily eco-lab.
While private schools and colleges have taken the lead on sustainable school buildings and grounds, ardent public advocacy groups, as well as cold bureaucratic logic, are beginning to press decision-makers to require sustainability in public school design. As one example, the Washington [state] Sustainable Schools program, now in its pilot phase, requires that every K-12 school building in the state meet specific sustainability standards. Sustainable school projects are underway in Tennessee, North Carolina, Iowa, Minnesota, Vermont, New Jersey, and many more states, plus the United Kingdom and Australia.
Locally, some new Fayette County Public School buildings include aspects of healthy design. For example, the site orientation that LEED-accredited architect Susan Hill chose for the new Athens-Chilesburg Elementary School brings ample natural light into the building. Hill, a partner at Tate Hill Jacobs, says the energy conservation from this 'natural daylighting' will benefit the school budget and the larger environment throughout the 75-100 years the building will be used.
In some ways, Hill says, time is the scarcest resource when doing sustainable design. 'It's not just about the materials,' Hill said. 'There are all kinds of ways to do sustainable design, and all kinds of tradeoffs. We need to respond to a particular site and program. It depends on having enough time together to understand all the limitations and opportunities. All voices have to be at the table.'
Students' voices, in particular, rarely contribute to school and community decision-making. At MMSK, however, students spoke up, and adults listened.
I can think of nothing ' not even giving up junk food ' that could be healthier for middle schools students than participating fully as valued contributors in the real work of our communities. We adults currently underestimate and undervalue what teenagers can do. We usually leave teens out of the important work of building strong communities as well as building healthy schools.
Maria Montessori, inventor of the educational framework within which the MMSK students and adults are thriving, envisioned teens as productive contributors to the work around them. Because I grew up on a farm I am never surprised by what adolescents can invent and manage. Teens often run entire farming operations on working family farms.
Knowing that, I call the noteworthy communication between students and adults at MMSK rich, promising, and appropriate. I cannot call it new, though. It draws on a legacy of millennia of natural mutual respect among young people and adults.
Similarly, the seemingly new ideas that underlie sustainable or 'green' school design are not so new after all. Susan Hill said, 'These are ancient ideas.' Working with the sun, with the land, and with entire communities to identify and benefit from the built-in goodness in each ' these are venerable human habits, even though we may have forgotten their importance during the last little sliver of human history.
Though the MMSK students do not need 2007 resolutions, I propose one for the rest of us: Let's value each other and make wise use of our precious place. Let's change the world.
Montessori Middle School of Kentucky: www.cmsmontessori.org Basics of sustainability: www.sustainability.org and www.wikipedia.org U.S. Green Building Council: www.usgbc.org Environmental education resources in Kentucky: http://keec.ky.gov/resources.htm Tate Hill Jacobs Architects, Inc.: www.thjarch.com
Read more Nougat articles by Rona.