School Board members urged to pass a test in support of sustainability

At the Highland Park School Board meeting on Dec. 8, board members became students in a lecture on sustainability. The teachers were a Highland Park Middle School student and two Highland Park High School students.

And the winners in this role reversal lesson eventually could be all the residents of Highland Park now and in the future.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, students asked the School Board to pass a resolution at its next meeting (Monday, Jan. 5, 2015) to join Sustainable Jersey for Schools, a non-for-profit certification program for New Jersey public schools whose goal is to go green, conserve resources and take steps to create a brighter future.

Eighth grader Sophia McDermott-Hughes and two high school students Sarah Liebau and Hailey Conrad gave persuasive and passionate arguments for becoming part of the Sustainable Jersey for Schools Program. Dr. Melanie McDermott introduced the presentation but acknowledged that the words of the student advocates would have the most impact.

“I am very excited for this opportunity for our schools not only to do something good for the environment (and our budget) while raising student environmental awareness, but even more importantly to let our young people find out for themselves that they can make a difference in confronting big problems by organizing for local action,” Dr. McDermott said, before turning over the podium to the students.

Sophia McDermott-Hughes picked up where her mother left off.

“If any generation is going to change the world and turn climate change around, it’s us. But to do that, it is imperative that we get the education that we need. Climate change is not only real, it is something that we can stop, and that’s something that young people of my generation tend to forget. I cannot stress enough how important it is to teach the youth to speak up and let their voices be heard on environmental issues. Please, give us the opportunity to learn and for Highland Park Schools to be leaders in the worldwide movement for environmental change.”

High-schooler Sarah Liebau described to Highland Park Planet how she was inspired to become involved in the Sustainable Jersey for Schools movement. “While I have always cared deeply for the environment, most of my life, like a lot of the population, I felt like the only thing I could really do to contribute was recycle, and the rest would be up to law makers, which truth be told scared me, as environmental reform is not a priority for most politicians. At the end of my freshman year of high school, my history teacher, Lindsey Wilson, came to me with the idea of starting an environmental club. I was unsure about the idea at first, but once I pursued it, I opened my eyes to a whole new way of life. I realized that there are so many things an individual can and should do to help the environment, and that even as minors, as long as we take initiative, my peers and I can truly make a difference.”

Sustainable Jersey for Schools is modeled after the successful municipal program. Currently 419 of New Jersey 565 municipalities are participating in Sustainable Jersey, and 171 are certified. Highland Park is one of 22 municipalities certified at the Silver Level (currently the highest level). Working through a participatory process with 30 issue based Task Forces, composed of local officials, educators, academics, and non-profit groups, Sustainable Jersey identifies specific “actions” that schools and districts can implement to achieve a high quality standard of living over the long term. The actions cover such issues as: energy and water conservation; recycling; eliminating toxic chemicals in the school; indoor air quality; safe routes to school; and in-classroom environmental and sustainability education.

Sustainable Jersey for Schools provides tools, training and financial incentives to support the schools as they implement the actions. Each action is worth a certain number of points, and if the school can document implementation of 150 points they can achieve the Bronze Level of Certification.

The program is free, and according to Sustainable Jersey, many of the actions lead to cost savings in energy, water, and garbage bills, and thus free up money for the classroom. In addition, Sustainable Jersey works to make additional resources available for participating schools. Currently they are offering $100,000 worth of small grants to participating schools in what they hope will be the first of many small grant cycles.

The first step in the process would be for the school board to pass the requested resolution expressing its commitment to enrolling the district in the program, forming a district Green Team, and appointing a liaison to Sustainable Jersey. Once the district is registered, each school may then form a school Green Team and begin to implement new sustainability practices. Thereafter each school can submit evidence of completion of a menu of environmental actions to earn points towards certification.

The speakers all urged the school board to act at the next meeting so the district could be registered in time to put in an application during the 2015 registration period (January through March) and to be eligible to compete for a small grant.

The role reversal lesson continues at the Jan. 5th board meeting – and the sustainability advocates hope the board members will pass the test with an A+ by passing the resolution.

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