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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Enviro School Boom

Air Date: Week of

Schools in Grand Rapids, Michigan are promoting environmental education in many innovative ways. Wendy Nelson of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium reports on this current booming green curriculum.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Grand Rapids, Michigan, has the largest concentration of environmental schools for youngsters in the nation. A total of 4 1-year programs are now operating as part of the public school system. One is based at a zoo, another at a nature center, another in an industrial part of the city. But they all have one thing in common: they're teaching children about the natural world around them. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Wendy Nelson has our report.

NELSON: Remember elementary school? All those orderly rows of little desks. Lining up for recess. Raising your hand to be called on. If you do, you probably weren't a student at Blanford School.


POSTHUMUS: We can talk during class, unless someone else is talking up at the front of the room. We pretty much have freedom here.

NELSON: Mike Posthumus is one of 60 students at Blanford School, a year-long environmental education program for sixth graders located on a nature center in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Chances are, when these kids think back on their elementary school days, they're more likely to remember --

(Sounds of chickens)

NELSON: -- their chickens.

BOY 1: This is Aregalian. She's one of the youngest chickens here.

BOY 2: And this is Dinner Bell. He -- or she's one of the older chickens.

BOY 1: We come here, almost every recess we hold our chicken, we pet it. We make sure everything's going fine and that sort of thing.

NELSON: The kids here run their own chicken business, learning everything from how to take care of the animals to examining and grading their eggs. The thrust of the program at the Blanford School is a hands-on experiential way of learning in which nature is often the only guide. Although the program emphasizes the natural sciences, teacher Adele Backman says core subjects, like English and social studies, aren't ignored.

BACKMAN: We don't use textbooks as a whole. We develop our own curriculum. Every day is different. Our routine is never the same. We just kind of flow with the calendar.

NELSON: This kind of environmental education isn't new to Grand Rapids. The Blanford School's been operating for 23 years. It's been so popular with students and parents that the Grand Rapids public school system started 3 similar programs to meet the demand. Toni Bal is the lead teacher at the newest of the schools. She says there's been some confusion about the program, with some people thinking it's one of the new charter schools.

BAL: Being a public school teacher for 30 years, it's very important to me that the public does know that alternatives are happening, even in the second largest district in the state. I want our public school district to have the credit for that, and not get anybody confused with any of the charters that are starting.

NELSON: Three of the environmental schools are for sixth graders. And last year, a group of parents asked the school system to extend environmental education into the middle school grades. The result is the Grass Roots Environmental Science Academy, a seventh grade program.

(Sounds of traffic)

NELSON: Students at the Grass Roots Academy can look out fourth floor windows and watch expressway traffic pass by. Twelve-year-old Sara Igleski says it's all part of the lesson.

IGLESKI: We're still learning about the environment around us, just not like the nature kind of environment. Because I think that wherever you are there's really an environment there, just sometimes it's not always nature.

NELSON: Because of the school's location, the teachers at Grass Roots Academy make sure they include the urban environment in their lessons. The students have used compasses and maps to negotiate the city streets, and in math class a recent assignment was to count the traffic flow for 5 minutes and then figure out a formula to estimate how many cars will pass by in an hour.

(Several children speaking at once)

NELSON: The Grass Roots Academy is also home to an animal lab. Susan Brillhart teaches science here, and says the rats, birds, snakes, and other animals help the students learn many of the lessons of the natural world.

BRILLHART: Children seem to think conservation means no killing of anything ever. And well, no. We have hunters in our group that say no, that's not conservation. Conservation is maintaining a population. So we've had some real good discussions come out of that, too.

NELSON: On this Friday, the students in the animal lab are cleaning cages and preparing the animals for the weekend. Lindsay Chapman is cupping a pregnant rat in her hands, petting it with one finger and talking to it softly. She says she really didn't like rats until she got to know them, and now she's looking forward to seeing their babies born. But when I asked her how she'd feel feeding the rats to the snake whose cage is right across the room, it was obvious that this was a lesson still to come.

CHAPMAN: Oh, no, we won't feed them to the snake.

STUDENT: Yeah, we will.

CHAPMAN: If they die, then we'll feed them to them.

STUDENT: We need them to feed the snake.

NELSON: Brillhart say lessons like these can be hard for the kids to understand, but they're part of the balancing act of life.

BRILLHART: Environmental science is primarily a science of weighing your options and deciding which is the least damaging and the most beneficial. And there never is a clear-cut right and wrong answer. It's always somebody's going to hurt and somebody's going to benefit.

NELSON: The teachers at Grass Roots hope the school will move to a more natural setting by next fall, and by that time they also hope to have an eighth grade program in place. For Living on Earth, I'm Wendy Nelson in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

(Ambient students)

STUDENT: I don't think we're going to feed these guys to the snake, I think we're going to feed these guys to the snake...


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