Between the landscaper with the weed wacker in their butterfly garden, his partner with a leaf blower outside their window for nearly an hour, and the pesticide applicator ready to spray their room, Suzanne and her fifth grade students felt as if they were under attack last week at their Bridgeport school.
Last year the "landscapers" cut down two rows of raspberries her students had planted to create a "living, edible fence," so as soon as Suzanne heard that sound again, she got coverage for her class and literally ran downstairs to check. Sure enough, the fellow with the string trimmer was just about to "clean up" the perennial flower garden her students planted to beautify the school entrance. However, all the plants in that garden are flowering perennials; there are no weeds. Saved! But, by the time she got back to her room, the roar of a leaf blower filled the space outside the four classrooms on her side of the building. All that noise and pollution just to move a few leaves around. Next the pesticide applicator was seen down the hall ready to spray poison around the classrooms to control bugs. She closed her door, but he sprayed other classrooms with a poison so strong that its residues will kill pests for weeks.
That was just one day. For much of this year, a crew was painting during school hours. The paint can's label warns of the dangers of inhaling fumes from this paint and stresses the need for adequate ventilation. In the middle of winter, however, the crew was painting the cafeteria while the students were eating there, with all the windows closed. (Keep in mind that these children already live in some of the most polluted air in the country, and many of them suffer from asthma.)
Most of the winter, Suzanne's classroom windows had to be open anyway, so that the incredible heat in her room didn't put everyone to sleep. In the winter!
Last fall a contractor placed the air-conditioning compressor unit for the principal's office almost right on top of a lilac bush students had planted three years before. Although the unit's placement was crude and inconsiderate, it was also stupid. As the lilac grows, it will tend to choke out the noisy air conditioner. A slight adjustment of location would have made a big difference in long-term maintenance costs.
This year, taking orders for student lunches has been added to the teachers' job description. For example, on April 9, her students could choose between a meatball grinder and a hot dog. On April 10, beef nacho and a bologna and cheese sandwich were the choices. There is no healthy choice here!
In years past, a contractor paved up to and right on up the trunks of the big trees which provide welcome shade to the south side of the school. The custodians used to spray herbicides on the cracks in the asphalt playground while the children were playing, until they were urged to read the label which indicated that the applicator should be wearing extensive protective clothing to use that substance.
Children learn by example. Modeling is important. And yet, ignorance is spreading so fast in our society (with enormous help from television), that the school system either has no idea how to treat a bush, a tree, or a perennial garden, let alone a vegetable garden or a child, or else it doesn't think these things matter. All that seems to matter is higher test scores so the kids can compete in the mythical global marketplace. Never mind that the air they breath is poisoned, that the food they are served is unhealthful, that their senses are assaulted and their work and environment are trashed, all paid for with our taxes.
There are, however, some great examples of change toward more ecological solutions which are an integral part of the educational process. The Hartford Food System is helping students learn to cook and eat local fruits and vegetables for lunch. The Partnership for Healthy Schools, in Albany, New York, distributes resources for eliminating the use of pesticides in schools. Green Teacher magazine devoted its recent issue to "Transforming School Grounds" into ecological learning areas and the many benefits derived by students.
To find out more about these positive changes, send a stamped, self addressed envelope to Healthy Schools, WSHU, 5151 Park Avenue, Fairfield, CT 06432.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth.
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