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Savoring Earth's Treasures

Monday, September 21, 2015  
Posted by: Christina Mimms
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS

For several years, Cape Henry Collegiate School’s 6th grade earth science teacher Ashleigh Cake maintained a modest classroom garden. Nurtured under grow lights, she and her students produced a few plants to study in the vein of environmental sustainability. But when one of her students said, “Mrs. Cake, we need to get these outside,” Cake began to investigate options for an outdoor garden. Using some surplus departmental funds, in August 2014 she was able to get one garden bed built and since that time has tripled the gardens which now feature red-leaf lettuce, four kinds of tomatoes, Swiss chard, beans, herbs, peas, squash, zucchini, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, and edible flowers, along with two composting bins and three rain barrels.

The secret to the bounty in Cape Henry’s Virginia Beach, VA, garden is mushroom compost and lots of TLC from some green-thumb 6th graders, who spend about one and a half hours per week working in the garden, which is also equipped with seating. Cake sometimes conducts an entire class outside, weather permitting. “I love getting the kids outside,” she said. “They are so engaged out there.”

Students deliver the harvest from the gardens directly to the school cafeteria, but Cake hopes that they will produce enough goods to donate to community kitchens in the near future. Recently, they pulled in 200 yellow tomatoes that they excitedly ferried to the kitchen staff. "The pride they feel when their food is cooked for the school is palpable," Cake said. “Kids are sometimes so far removed from where their food comes from and they have learned so much from this project. I love the connection to the cafeteria.”

The students take a lot of pride and ownership in the gardens, which require a lot of maintenance. Students bring items from home, such as eggshells, to contribute to the school composting bins which provide fodder for additional earth science lessons.

A behemothian task, composting has challenged 8th grade environmental science teacher Simon Keilty, a ten-year faculty member at Charlotte Country Day School in Charlotte, NC, which also maintains a 12-bed garden on its middle school campus. “We have had a lot of failures with composting,” Keilty said. “Contamination is a big problem.”

But that has been just one of few bumps on the road of scientific discovery, with which his 8th graders and other middle schoolers at CCDS have delighted in many successes. A student Green Team, which Keilty advises, leads an e-waste drive twice a year to collect old electronics to donate to Goodwill for resale. The team also heads the annual Green Cup Challenge, a national initiative sponsored by the Green Schools Alliance in which schools track their electricity use and bring awareness to energy saving opportunities. Keilty said his students personally read about 50 electric meters throughout the campus during the month-long challenge.

Other efforts have included leading paper and bottle recycling on campus, collecting used shoes for recycling, collecting old cell phones, and gathering various items for Terra Cycle, an upcycling and recycling company that re-purposes items. School items may include empty glue sticks, snack bags, or empty tape rolls.

In 8th grade science class, students devote a significant amount of time to studying waste streams, stormwater management, and surface water pollution. With the middle school campus’s location on McAlpine Creek, Keilty enjoys an additional classroom where students can go outside to perform water samplings and invertebrate samplings. The school also sponsors a Water Quality Club; its students do water samplings of the creek once a month and report their findings to the school.

Keilty said these hands-on learning opportunities, both in the classrooms and in clubs, affect students greatly. “In environmental science, kids have opportunities for real, authentic experiences. They can see that they are having an impact – it’s very tangible and it encourages us to continue. Students need that short-term satisfaction, although there is no end to this. Sustainability is something you will never reach but you can always improve.”

CCDS is dedicated to that improvement by including it in its statement of key values: We empower our students to address social, environmental, and global issues and to realize the obligation and value in giving of themselves for the public good.”

Because of that, Keilty, who also serves as middle school environmental stewardship coordinator, and other faculty members have received funding and freedom to investigate the best uses of school resources. In some cases, the faculty and their students were able to identify better contracts for school services, such as waste management or cafeteria products, and to save the school some money, which speaks to the issue of financial sustainability.

At The Steward School in Richmond, VA, the Bryan Innovation Lab provides a unique space in which students can delve deeply into studies related to energy and resources, health and wellness, and the natural and built environment. Through its Visiting Innovators program, the school welcomes professional speakers at least three times per year and also enjoys visits from students at nearby Virginia Commonwealth University.

Sarah Severn, senior director of stakeholder mobilization at Nike, spoke at Steward in February 2015 to educate students about the company’s sustainability programs. Crafting Nike shoes drains a lot of resources and the company is dedicated to responsible practices. View a video from her visit here

Regular classes are also held in the lab, with Cary Jamieson, director of the Bryan Innovation Lab, collaborating with classroom teachers to plan their lessons. “We customize the experience for each grade level and it makes it so much more meaningful,” Jamieson said. For example, when 4th grade classes were studying the watershed, they performed some live demonstrations in the lab and had the opportunity to construct and test their own water filters. Kindergarten classes bake their own bread in an annual project; last school year they brought their project to the lab, where Jamieson invited a local baker to speak to the students. They talked about and touched different types of grains, planted grains in test pots to watch them grow, and baked bread in the kitchen facility in the lab. In a middle school science class, a few mothers from the school brought in their babies and toddlers, and a visiting pediatrician discussed how babies grow and develop as well as their myriad health needs. These are just a few of the 2,000 different lessons that are taught in the Bryan Innovation Lab over the course of a school year. For more information about the center, view this article from the Steward School. 

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