Dirty Work for Clean Schools - news story

Dirty work for clean schools

Dirty Work for Clean Schools

by Charles Trowbridge
As she climbs into her car, Julie Gustafson is preparing for a messy undertaking: a trash audit of an elementary school’s cafeteria garbage.
But Gustafson is no stranger to dirty jobs. She once spent a summer working a slime-line on the Discovery Star, a small fish processing vessel run out of Cold Bay, Ala.
“I got really seasick, so instead of gutting the fish, I ended up being the one ripping out the roe,” Gustafson said, referring to the eggs in the belly of a salmon.
And that is why today’s task doesn’t faze her in the least.
Gustafson has traded her rain gear for more office-friendly attire as the regional education manager for the National Wildlife Federation’s Rocky Mountain Regional Center. Today, she is wearing jeans, a gray polo with the federation’s insignia, and dark sunglasses.

She issues a warning: “We’re going to be digging through garbage, so, you know, don’t wear your nice clothes.”

Escuela Biling├╝e Pioneer Elementary School, Lafayette, Colo. (Photo/Boulder Valley School District)
Gustafson is headed to Escuela Biling├╝e Pioneer Elementary in Lafayette, Colo. to help the Equipo Verde (green team) dig through cafeteria garbage. They will sort the recyclable and compostable materials from the landfill refuse. She carries a bag of gear for the endeavor – yellow cleaning gloves for the adults and transparent food-service gloves for the kids. The wind scatters the kids’ gloves across the work area and they scramble to collect them all.
“So much for our no-waste plan,” Gustafson deadpans.
Gustafson has worked as the National Wildlife Federation’s education manager for nine years, partnering with other environmental advocacy groups and promoting the need for environmental education on both the state and local level. She has worked in the environmental sector in just about every capacity: teaching, activism, legal work, and now education advocacy. Her primary focus is promoting environmental education in schools – a goal that took a major step forward with 2010’s passing of the Colorado Kids Outdoors Act. She combines her state-level policy work with a more localized program, Eco-Schools USA, in an attempt to build support for environmental education community-wide.
The Eco-Schools program is built around a seven-step plan that any school can follow. The trash audit at Pioneer Elementary is part of the second step, which is to “perform an environmental review/audit,” according to the guidelines posted on the program’s  website. Though the trash audit is just one part of the second step, it’s an important part, Gustafson said.
“We say, ‘Start small; look at one issue,’” she says. “In the case of Pioneer Elementary, they’re looking at waste reduction. And then, once you get through that main pathway, you can tackle another issue area.”
The school itself is traditional red brick, with a large playing field adjacent and a skate park just beyond the parking lot. A sign hangs in the windows above the double-door entrance that reads “Bienvenidos” in multi-colored letters.
In the school’s atrium, where Gustafson meets the students and the parent volunteer, Kathy DiCenzo, student art decorates the walls–kiln-fired tiles, drawings and paintings. A nearby bookshelf has two signs; one reads, “Free Books,” and the other, “Libros Gratis.”
The Equipo Verde is comprised of about 15 students, from kindergarten up to 3rd grade. Today only five kids, all 2nd and 3rd graders, plan to help. While waiting for the students to get out of class, Gustafson talks to an elderly man sitting on a couch waiting for his grandson. She tells him about the audit, asking him if he wants to help.
“I can’t bend over, so I’m out,” he says, nodding at the trashcans that will eventually need to be picked up and dumped. Gustafson laughs.
The Foundation for Environmental Education began the Eco-Schools program in 1994. The National Wildlife Federation took over the program in 2008, and today there are more than 400 certified Eco-Schools in the country. Colorado has 20 such schools.
“We’ve been spreading the word about the Eco-Schools program across Colorado and the region for about the last year, and we’re seeing a growing number of Colorado schools register,” Gustafson says. “Basically, the program is a student-driven program that looks at greening your school: the student experience, the curriculum, the school grounds and the school building.”
Laura Hickey, senior director of the national Eco-Schools USA program, said in an email that incorporating environmental education into school curriculums is critical to giving students a well-rounded educational experience.
“By institutionalizing environmental education in core standards and adapted state or district standards, [it] will be there for the long term,” Hickey wrote, “ensuring a level of environmental literacy in all students and faculty, and by extension the broader community.”
After a school has gone through the seven-step process, it is eligible to apply for an Eco-Schools award. There are three award levels: Bronze, Silver and the Green Flag award, the acme of the program.  A school’s award level depends on the extent of its implementation of the program.
The first two levels, the Bronze and Silver, are self-assessed. One of the requirements for the Bronze award is establishing an Eco-Action committee made up of students and teachers or parent volunteers, which must meet at least four times per year. The action committee must do an audit, such as the trash audit at Pioneer Elementary, and from that audit the students come up with an Action Plan designed to help the school achieve its desired goal. Then the action committee monitors the plan’s progress in order to evaluate its success.
The Silver award requirements build upon those of the Bronze award. For instance, with the action plan, instead of focusing on only one aspect of environmental management, the Eco-Action committee must choose at least two, one being energy.
The Green Flag award takes the basic elements of the first two awards and adds even more stringent requirements. An official Eco-Schools evaluator must also certify that all requirements have been met and reevaluate the school every two years. DiCenzo, the parent volunteer in charge of the Eco-Schools program at Pioneer Elementary, said the group’s long-term goal is to become a Silver award recipient.
“We’re trying to achieve the Silver award – it seems the most realistic,” she said.  “But even though we’re working toward Silver award status, we have hopes of becoming a Green Flag school.”
After school lets out, DiCenzo and Gustafson gather the kids in the parking lot behind a trio of blue dumpsters – two for garbage, one for recycling – and lay down ground rules.

(Photo/simon.hucko via Flickr)
“If you see anything sharp, anything that can cut you, like glass or a broken soda can, don’t touch it, and tell one of the adults,” DiCenzo says.
A student asks about other rules.
“The other rules are common sense,” Gustafson says. “Don’t eat anything; don’t do anything to try to gross out the adults.”
Four large, clear garbage bags sit on the ground, and one by one, each is torn open, much to the horror of the students. Each student greets the contents with a look halfway between grossed-out and intrigued. But as they dig in, they quickly unearth unopened yogurts and juice boxes and untouched orange slices, leading to exclamations about the wastefulness of their classmates. The temptation to keep some of the unopened food is evident, but adult intervention quells those desires.
“Just throw it into the trash bucket,” Gustafson says.
Gustafson began her career working in an outdoor environmental education center in Georgia, after graduating from Ohio State University with a degree in environmental education, interpretation and communications. Although she enjoyed working with children at the education center, she said she felt frustrated by the brief interactions and not knowing if what she taught the kids had an impact on them in the future.
She left the education center to work for Colorado Public Interest Research Group, and later left that job when a position opened up with the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies, now Western Resource Advocates. While with the Land and Water Fund, she worked as the director of its pro bono program, matching attorneys interested in working on environmental issues with causes that required legal expertise.
Eventually, the Western Resource Advocates decided to cut the pro bono program, but once again, Gustafson landed an ideal position: regional education manager for the National Wildlife Federation.
“It was a perfect fit as far as marrying my education interests and my advocacy interest,” she said. “And that’s why I’ve been here almost 10 years.”
Along with her work on the Eco-Schools project, Gustafson also sits on the board of the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education. The alliance is a non-profit organization whose main focus is to help demonstrate the importance of environmental education on the state, community and personal level, and it currently has more than 850 members throughout the state.  The biggest victory so far is the passing of the Colorado Kids Outdoor Act in 2010.
The passage of the act means environmental education is in the process of becoming part of Colorado’s education curriculum requirements statewide. The purpose of the act is to allow kids to experience environmental education by being outdoors and seeing things firsthand, Gustafson said.
“It’ll open the doors to environmental education-based professional development for teachers and more opportunities for youth to get outdoors and learn about the environment,” she said.
Though the plan is still in its developmental phase, Gustafson hopes to see it fully adopted before September 2012. But she sees some potential roadblocks in the future. Currently, volunteers are responsible for most of the work being done to advance the implementation plan.
“The way it’s written right now, it would largely rely on volunteers that serve on the state or regional environmental education counsels to implement the plan,” she said, “and we really feel like if there were staff people responsible for continuing its advancement, it would be the support that the volunteer counsel would need to make regular progress.”
Gustafson said she and other advocates have been working on trying to get either the Department of Natural Resources or the Department of Education to allocate a staff person to advancing the plan.

(Photo/malinky via Flickr)
As the garbage sorting progresses, the students drop out, one by one, until they all sit along the fence watching the remaining adults pick through the rest. Eleven metal forks have been pulled from the trash, and Gustafson uses this finding as a way to keep the kids engaged.
“So what can you do to help remind your classmates not to throw their forks away?” she asks.
The question evokes a range of answers, from reminder signs above the trashcans to the ever-dreaded trip to the principal’s office, which would probably do the trick, Gustafson agrees, laughing.
Working in a place like the Boulder Valley presents Gustafson with different challenges compared to other areas of the state. In most cases, especially in environmental education, Boulder and surrounding towns like Lafayette are “ahead of the curve,” she said. But she often encounters a different kind of challenge here: sometimes knowing about an issue, and actually taking action, are two different things.
“I would say one does not lead to another,” she said. “So people may know, ‘oh, habitat loss across the front range is a big problem,’ but it doesn’t mean they’re empowered – interested enough, knowledgeable enough, and have the skills to take the action.”
But as long as there is some level of awareness, Gustafson thinks she can help bridge the gap between knowledge and action.
When the last bag is picked through, the final numbers are tallied: a little more than four pounds of recyclable material and more than 70 pounds of compostable material has been separated from the garbage.
Gustafson asks a student how much he weighs.  Sixty pounds, he tells her.
“We just threw away more than one of you in compostable garbage,” she says. “Can you believe that?”

Charles Trowbridge is a CU-Boulder graduate student studying print and broadcast journalism with an emphasis on environmental reporting. Before coming to CU, he studied music and English in Oregon, where he became interested in environmental issues related to preserving wild fish populations. Born and raised in Alaska, he plans to return upon completion of his degree to examine the effect of climate change on commercial fishing.

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