by Victoria Mirian

While McDougle Middle School’s rain garden sits waiting for rain, four solar panels stand outside the library waiting for sunshine.

When a group of students approached McDougle science teacher Ruben Giral with the idea for the solar panels, Giral encouraged them to pursue it.

“I volunteered us before we had permission,” Giral said. “What I didn’t realize was that they were going to write letters and get signatures.”

Students talked to the Carrboro Town Council and raised $8,000 to fund the project. The panels were placed close to the library so passersby could see what came of the group’s dedication.

The Carrboro-based school is one of several in the area taking environmental education seriously.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools’ dedication to the environment recently earned the district a nomination for the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Schools recognition award. The award recognizes schools that excel in sustainability, student and staff wellness and environmental education.

The school district is one of two state-nominated districts that will represent North Carolina at the national level. Award-winning districts will be announced on Earth Day, April 22.

“They’re becoming little activists,” Giral said. “They’re developing the tenacity to see that they can see an idea through to fruition.”

District-wide efforts

CHCCS hired a sustainability coordinator, Dan Schnitzer, last school year to bring sustainable practices to the school district.

“There’s a lot of positive impact that the school district can have right now, seeing as we run over 3 million square feet of facility every single day of the week, every single day of the year,” Schnitzer said.

Early on, Schnitzer looked at reducing energy waste by cutting down on heating and air conditioning. He found a minimum set-point at which to set buildings while school is not in session.

Schnitzer also encouraged the school district to invest in lighting upgrades that, he said, looked expensive at first, but have saved energy and, therefore, money.

“Once we’re there, we save money every single day, so it requires a more holistic, long-term vision to really make this work,” he said.

The district serves more than 12,000 students, and Schnitzer wants to work on sustainability education, so students continue the practices they’ve learned long after they leave the school system.

In all of the middle and elementary schools in the district, students separate their leftovers into compost bins after lunch. Programs like this, Schnitzer said, can help reduce the massive amounts of waste the school district produces.

The program was recently expanded to include Carrboro High School after high school students expressed interest in joining the effort.

“The fundamentals of giving students tools to live happy, healthy, successful lives in the future is exactly the same whether we’re talking about the basics of math, science, history or we’re talking about sustainability and environmental education,” Schnitzer said.

Growing garden fresh food

Chartwells, a dining service that provides food to the school district and fills school cafeterias with fresh options for students.

Liz Cartano, the director of the CHCCS Child Nutrition Program who also works for Chartwells, said Chartwells encourages students to experience firsthand what goes into growing fresh food because students are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables once they know where they come from.

The company gave CHCCS a five-year grant totaling $50,000 as part of its contract. The grant, now in its fifth year, funded school gardens for its first three years.

Cartano said last year’s grant money was used to train teachers to sustain the gardens.

McDougle Middle School’s community garden was a student-driven project.

“The kids just kind of started taking it on as a project and planting things,” said McDougle Middle School Principal Debra Scott.

Now, the school’s cafeteria has expressed interest in using the fresh produce from the garden in its meals, giving students a taste of their hard work.

Otherwise, the produce goes to local restaurants in the summer.

Connecting students to ways they can be sustainable, Schnitzer said, makes a difference later in their lives.

“That’s the essence of what schools do — schools aren’t just there for one year and then they’re gone,” Schnitzer said. “Schools don’t teach kids to do something good today and then whatever happens tomorrow, we’ll deal with it tomorrow.”

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