Greening NYC Private and Public Schools – An Introduction

by Pamela French on December 21, 2009

Pamela FrenchIn the summer of 2008 I felt the itch to be proactive both creatively and environmentally, and hit the city streets with my bike, a flip camera and a question “How would you make New York a Greener Apple?” Thirty short films later, I’ve created this grassroots campaign where New Yorkers themselves tell how they would make their city of New York a “greener” place to live.

Somewhere around six months into my ‘A Greener Apple’ initiative, I thought it was time to talk to the City about what I was doing, and how I could take the worthwhile (doable) answers (i.e. curbside recycling, more bike lanes, less cars, turn of your lights, reusable bags, etc.) I had documented from my man-on-the-street responses, and actually implement them on the streets of New York. This meeting with the City wasn’t as well received as I had hoped it would be. I found that in contrast to what I had expected, and secretly hoped, I instead was the one being questioned as to, “what was I doing in my own home and my children’s school, that was making New York greener?”

Interesting! What was I doing? How was I contributing to this campaign that I was so passionate and excited about? Was I practicing what my campaign was hoping to preach? This led me to look at my own world and my lifestyle choices. How could I reduce my family’s carbon footprint? What could my contribution be to making the City, I so adored, greener and more environmentally friendly?

This idea of individuality — everybody doing his or her part, a baby steps approach towards greening the apple — now became my vision. What I discovered six months in, is still what I’m finding, sixteen months later. In order for me to really make a difference (yes, my ‘A Greener Apple’ campaign was generating awareness and a healthy following), I’d have to start small – plant the seed and hope that it would grow into something bigger. And the best way I found to do this was through my children, and in the environment in which they grow – the City schools.

This doubly made sense to me when I looked back over the answers to my initial question, “How would you make New York A Greener Apple?” I realized it was the children who had the most profound, real and doable answers. So why not start with the children in New York? I remembered a quote,

“while we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about” – Angela Schwindt.

If we focused on greening our City schools, and educating the kids both in their daily school practices and down the line in their curriculum, it would become second nature to them. Whether and how to recycle wouldn’t even be a question, it would be a way of life. The kids would learn it, and then educate their parents and caregivers if they weren’t already up to speed.

This made so much sense, and was even later proven to me when my six-year-old daughter, after watching one of my ‘A Greener Apple’ pieces (Recycle and Reuse), corrected her science teacher as to the proper way to recycle a Poland Spring water bottle – “No Mr. X, the cap goes into the garbage, before you throw the bottle out (recycle it).” The teacher even thanked me (well kind of) for educating him on the City’s proper recycling protocol, via my little girl. By the way, this teacher is now the recycling coordinator at my children’s public school.

Hence, the ‘bigger’ focus to my ‘A Greener Apple’ project began – Greening the City’s schools. At the same time as I was redirecting my energies, my children’s school was moving from one public school building to another and a group of parents agreed to form a Green Team to make the move, and the renovations at the new site, more eco-friendly. We were also allowed to provide the faculty with alternative eco-friendly classroom supply lists to send home with the students on the last day of school. We hoped that the parents would take our suggestions and purchase more environmentally friendly school supplies for the following school year at our new building.

Once I took these first steps, the doors kept opening. Through my internet sites, and my devoted A Greener Apple fans and followers, I learned of The Green Schools Alliance (GSA), an alliance of K to12 public, private, and independent schools uniting to take action on climate change and the environment. As luck had it, immediately following this introduction, I was invited to attend a GSA event at The Collegiate School with my camera in hand.

Before I go any further, I need to explain here why my invitation to film at Collegiate was so exciting, and unexpectedly outrageous for me.

As a native New Yorker and a parent living in New York City, I was amazed when I realized what it entailed to get your child into a good kindergarten. “What do you mean testing and interviewing”? “What, you don’t want my darling, bright son and our super-creative, unique family to be a part of your school”? So outraged, stupefied, and down right humiliated, I thought I’d turn the cameras on this whole admissions process and make a documentary film about this (only in New York) ordeal. So, after a year of casting and finding a production company who was commissioned to make a similar film for TLC, I embarked on the year long making of a doc-reality show for television entitled, “Getting In… Kindergarten.” The reason why I bring this up is that during the production, I begged schools like Collegiate (both private and public) to let me in to film. I was told at the time, under NO circumstances, would they allow me to.

Here I was, three year later, being invited to film inside the coveted Collegiate School that I so wanted in my “Getting In…” film. Complete access to the teachers, the kids, the administration, the building – it wasn’t because policy changed, it was because they were now speaking to a topic that was important to ALL of them, across the board – Greening the New York Schools. Also, I think it’s important for you blog readers, and probably parents of school aged children to know the reason I am writing this blog, and ultimately working towards ‘greening the apple’ (and hopefully the city’s schools). It is for both our children and our children’s children. All my best work is work that I am most passionate about – whether it is getting my kid in to the ‘best’ New York City school I can, or making our kids future environment (New York) greener and more sustainable.

This invitation to film at Collegiate was a coup to say the least. I was now standing inside one of the top Firm Schools in New York City, snickering to myself while interviewing the top Heads of Schools as to how they, ‘would make New York a greener apple”? – They were all so open and willing to discuss and embrace this green school movement – boy it was so exciting!

It too was on this day, that John Shea, the Chief Executive Officer at New York City Department of Education announced that our Chancellor, Joel Klein, was committing the public schools to sign on to the GSA and address the climate change challenge head-on! This was a momentous day for the City schools, and there I was filming it. A documentary about the greening of the city schools was underway, as well as the makings of the best “A Greener Apple (NYC)” to date…

About the Contributor: Pamela French is a regular contributor to the NYC Firm Schools Blog in the area of ‘greening’ NYC Private and Public Schools.

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