Green School program cultivates learning

Youth's Benefits Elementary prides itself on teaching children about the environment

June 18, 2006|By CASSANDRA A. FORTIN | CASSANDRA A. FORTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Pupils at Youth's Benefit Elementary School perused the school grounds before settling on a barren area by the Fallston school's front entrance to plant a garden.

After the space was tilled, they planted native plants, such as bee balm, hydrangeas and black-eyed Susans. Next, they spread mulch. They also set up two barrels to collect rainwater that drains from the roof of the school.

Just a few days after planting the garden, they saw results.

"I think the children have some sort of magic powers," said Karen DeHart, a teacher in the gifted-and-talented program at Youth's Benefit.

The garden was nothing a week ago, and it seems as though the plants in the garden have doubled in size since then, she said.

The rain garden is one of several projects that culminated in the school's designation as a "Green School" in late May.

DeHart led the effort to get the Green School designation by focusing on recycling and planting native plants. One outdoor educator said the pupils excelled in their efforts.

"The students at Youth's Benefit did an outstanding job," said Amanda Koss, an educator at Harford Glen Environmental Education Center in Bel Air. "They have come to understand that the choices they make indoors affect the choices they make outdoors."

The Green School program was developed in 1999 through a collaboration of the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education, Office of the Governor, Maryland Association of Student Councils, Maryland State Department of Education, Department of Natural Resources and Maryland Department of the Environment.

Green School designations are given to schools that implement environmental education and address community environmental issues.

"Becoming a Green School shows pride in the environment, pride in your school and pride in your community," Koss said.

Although some schools include environmental lesson plans, the Green School designation requires that the environment be included in several areas of the curriculum.

"DeHart incorporated the environment into every subject area, due to her position," Koss said.

"What prevents some schools from trying to become a Green School is that it's hard for teachers to focus on the environment when they already have so many other things in their curriculum."

Youth's Benefit began the Green School application process in September, after Koss told DeHart about the program.

"The whole thing just seemed so worthwhile to me," DeHart said. "I attended a convention called No Child Left Inside, and that's what this program really does. It gets kids outdoors and aware of their environment."

In some cases, the program inspired pupils, such as Emerson Lyons, 11, of Baldwin.

"Becoming a Green School makes our school a better place," said Emerson, a fifth-grader. "The school was getting out of hand with garbage all over the place, and I don't want my school to be trashy. I want to do my part to help keep it clean."

Because there are more than 200 pupils in DeHart's programs, she chose activities according to learning styles.

"I wanted them all to help us become a Green School," she said.

To achieve this, DeHart divided activities by grade level.

The activities included: kindergartners, recycling; first-graders, nature scavenger hunt; second-graders, people pollution; third-graders, animal identification and habitats; fourth-graders, recycling and signs; and fifth-graders, rain garden, birdhouse trail and school play.

The pupils helped with everything, even the Green School application, DeHart said.

"The kids are so excited to do this," DeHart said. "They gather the garbage without any complaint. They managed to get the recreation groups to stop leaving their garbage on the ground."

The third-graders were enthralled with the animal and habitat identification. A highlight of their research came in the winter. "We went outside after it snowed and identified paw prints. Then we tracked a fox to its den and deer and rabbits," DeHart said.

The fourth-graders spearheaded the recycling program. They made lists of things to recycle, collected items for recycling, taught first-graders about it and created a sculpture from the items.

"They have really gotten into recycling," said DeHart, who used only recycled paper throughout the school year. "They hate Styrofoam because it isn't biodegradable, and they know what that means now."

The fifth-graders' bluebird trail consists of 20 birdhouses that will be placed 100 feet apart around the school grounds. The birdhouses were made using kits created by Harford Technical High School students.

"The Harford Tech kids took a great interest in the program; they even came to see the finished products," DeHart said.

After the fifth-graders constructed the houses, teachers painted and decorated them.

Next year's pupils will study the effectiveness of the houses, DeHart said. Each grade will monitor houses, she said. They will observe and analyze which birds use each house.

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