King County honors its Earth Heroes

  • Written by Deborah Stone
Earth Heroes one
Courtesy Photo Canyon Creek Elementary sixth grade students and Skyview Junior High teacher, Tom Nowak, “Earth Heroes at School.”
Each year, King County recognizes students, parents, teachers and staff members who share a passion for environmental conservation at its annual “Earth Heroes at School” ceremony.

“These stewards of the environment are our heroes – for conserving resources, protecting the environment and spreading the word about sustainable practices,” says King County Executive Dow Constantine. “I am proud to recognize them for their hands-on commitment to the planet.”

Among this year’s honorees are Canyon Creek Elementary sixth grade students and Skyview Junior High teacher, Tom Nowak.

To reduce Canyon Creek’s ecological footprint, sixth graders at the school created projects to support the waste reduction and the classroom and lunchroom recycling programs they had helped institute.

They developed presentations, posters and videos to explain and promote the recycling programs to other students, often voluntarily giving up recess to help the younger kids sort waste at lunch.

Their efforts have resulted in a 50 percent reduction in daily cafeteria garbage.

“The award recognizes the actions of both last year’s sixth graders and this year’s students,” explains Chris Brush, sixth grade teacher at Canyon Creek. “Classroom recycling has been going on for several years, but was limited and recycled only paper. One of our goals was to increase recycling of paper throughout the school and begin recycling items including aluminum, glass and some plastics. Our lunchroom recycling only began last year. Prior to last year, all lunchroom waste was placed in the garbage.”

This is the first time the school has received an Earth Hero Award, however, last year it was awarded Level One Green School status from King County.

According to Brush, the honor is important as it recognizes the hard work, time and commitment the students have demonstrated over the last two years to improve their school and their environment.

He adds, “It is important to get kids involved in programs like this because it motivates students and allows for deep learning across a range of subjects. Students have become passionate about improving their environment – both the school environment and beyond. This type of program allows students to have a meaningful impact. Their actions led to change. It is not an abstract worksheet about a topic. It is tangible and real. They worked hard, not only learning science content on system, but also how to research information, develop presentation skills, write effectively, manage projects and time and design strong visuals.”

Skyview Jr. High teacher Tom Nowak, who is also the assistant project manager for the school’s Outdoor Environmental Learning Center, has helped refine and support many sustainability projects, including the school’s water resource and conservation curriculum and its forest and soil units.

He also institutionalized the school-wide food scrap collection program and acquired funding and materials to raise Coho salmon in the classroom.

For Nowak, the award is one that he feels needs to be shared with a number of people at the school, including staff and students who have inspired an ethos that encompasses respect and awareness of the environment, as well as human community support.

He says, “By definition, environmental stewardship is a collective shift in a community’s paradigm toward caring for others more than yourself and supporting health and happiness, not just for now, but always.”

He adds, “At Skyview, we have special needs students and their dedicated staff that go to every room at least two times a week this entire year to greet classrooms and collect compost. We have a fantastic custodial team which brings double waste containers every day around the school, collecting sorted recycling beyond their normal duties. We have an inspired, creative staff willing to problem-solve how to create the cheapest and most efficient signs for lunch waste sorting. We have an administration so supportive and full of great ideas to help write grants on their own time, allowing our dreams to become a reality. Lastly, we have a dedicated student-based Green Team led by an organized and passionate educator, John Schmied.”

In describing the school’s Outdoor Environmental Learning Center, Nowak says that it is a large wooded/wetland area behind and around Skyview, which is part of a shrinking urban greenbelt. It is here that students practice their observation/inference and scientific process field study skills on ecological succession soil and water analysis, forest ecology, macro-invertebrate studies and more.

Mainly, seventh grade science classes are involved with the center because of the curriculum emphasis on life science.

Nowak feels it is essential to get kids more involved in environmental learning.

“Lack of access to natural settings and the power of computers have decreased both students’ physical activity as well as their lack of understanding where our natural resources come from,” he explains. “Many students do not know where their food comes from or electricity or where their garbage goes, to name a few. How can we have a strong American future if our children do not have a systemic understanding of where their resources come from and how to protect these resources?”

Nowak is most proud of the salmon release program and the level of student involvement and interest it has generated.

He also takes pride in having established composting at the school and notes data that shows students have separated 70 percent of their waste out of garbage into liquid, recycling and compost, which saves the district 70 percent from its garbage hauling fees.

The local educator has a dream that one day all schools in Northshore will compost and sort their waste, which will save taxpayer dollars and lead to the creation of a healthier soil to plant crops, in addition to fresher water to drink and cleaner air to breathe.

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