IRMO, S.C. (AP) — There are honeybees in the library, trout in the classrooms and vegetables in the yard at Dutch Fork Elementary. The school's focus on environment, sustainable practices and conservation education recently earned it the first Green Ribbon in South Carolina.
The U.S. Department of Education each year recognizes Green Ribbon Schools, educational institutions that prioritize eco-conscious behaviors and curriculum. Dutch Fork Elementary - Academy of Environmental Sciences, a magnet school in Lexington-Richland 5, is now among the winners of that title.
One of the school's goals is for all students to interact with nature, because "nobody has a monopoly" on environmental science, Principal Julius Scott said.
"You've been a scientist from the day you left your mother's womb," he said he tells students.
In kindergarten, students raise trout from eggs to replenish native populations of the fish. First graders work in the school's vegetable garden, watching seeds grow into food they can (and will) cook with. Third graders are leading a school-wide recycling project to repurpose plastic bags.
And all throughout their education, Dutch Fork Elementary students learn how to study the world around them, from tiny details on an endangered owl species to the giant threat climate change poses to the global water supply. Students learn how to become problem solvers and critical thinkers.
When first graders realized the winter months were killing their crop of peas, they built huts out of recycled water bottles to conduct heat and keep the soil warm. Other students roasted s'mores and baked pizzas in solar ovens they made out of tin foil and cardboard. With the help of resident scientist Amy Umberger, they're envisioning and designing sustainable solutions to real-world problems, Scott and assistant principal Brandon Gantt said.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman took notice of Dutch Fork Elementary's achievements and nominated the school for a Green Ribbon in January. Lexington-Richland 5 Superintendent Christina Melton and Scott traveled to Washington, D.C., recently to accept the award.
The school was among some 420 schools, 76 districts and 44 post-secondary institutions honored since the program began, according to a news release. Dutch Fork Elementary was among 35 schools honored with Green Ribbons this year.
The school's students have collected old tennis shoes, ripped plastic bags into shreds to be made into bedrolls for the homeless and studied honeybees at the school's indoor hive. The school also introduced a food waste composting and cafeteria recycling program to divert trash that would otherwise fatten a landfill — students take a field trip to a landfill for the full experience — or end up as pollution. And everything is turned into data.
A board at the far end of the cafeteria notes how much waste students measured each month. In August, it was 1,516 pounds of food waste, 211 pounds of landfill trash and 472 pounds of cafeteria recycling. Since the effort began, Scott estimates the school has diverted more than 100 tons of food waste.
"Our students take ownership of this process," he said as the mini-scientists lined up to sort lunch leftovers into trash, recycling and compost (later used to fertilize the garden).
Teachers at the school must meet all of the regular state standards, but the school's expertise is teaching through the lens of environmental science. What could be a droning lecture about renewable and nonrenewable resources instead becomes a game of musical chairs in Kendall Donald's third-grade class.
As more and more students — "people of the future" — were "born" into the game, there were fewer and fewer chairs, which represented the Earth's resources. First tin runs out, then copper, then gold.
"Population has increased, but what's happened to all of those nonrenewable resources?" Donald asked the giddy group.
At the end of the game, they sat in a circle to make sense of it. Donald explained how copper is an integral part of our electrical grid, how it is at the center of our wires and, therefore, our modern-day existence. So if we run out of copper, Donald told the students, we — "die!" one student shrieks — need to improvise. And then the group discussed the merits of renewable solar energy and hydroelectric power from the state's rivers.
Dutch Fork Elementary became a magnet school in 2013, when Lexington-Richland 5 received $10 million to kick start multiple programs across the district, according to Sara Wheeler, director of magnet programs.
But it was up to the school's leadership to take the seed money — "no pun intended," Wheeler said — and run with it. In the past 7 years, the majority-minority school has become known for its unique approach to elementary education, Scott said. Students are instructed to think beyond their immediate surroundings and consider people living in other parts of the world, dealing with other environmental difficulties and inequity.
"It's bigger than just gardening," Gantt said, "... We have a role in what happens to this planet."
Information from: The State, http://www.thestate.com