Air Date: Week of July 7, 1995
Known for its many specialty high schools, the New York City school system has added an environment high to its ranks. The course-work features ecology, and the school building itself is a model of energy efficiency. Teachers and students alike say the campus garden helps keep attendance high. Reporter Neil Rauch explains.
CURWOOD: While Parma, Ohio, gently works its wetlands program into its elementary school curriculum, the City of New York has recently launched an entire high school devoted to study of the environment. New York has a bright history of special public high schools. Generations of smart kids found their way into science and medicine through the Bronx High School of Science. And New York's High School for the Performing Arts inspired the movie and television series Fame. Now the city is poised to graduate its first crop of seniors from its High School for Environmental Studies. And as Neil Rauch reports, the school is also the model for inner-city public education that gives kids a safe learning environment and hope for the future.
RAUCH: One of the first things principal Alex Corbluth will tell you is that this is a tough school with a full academic program.
CORBLUTH: We have the full Regents courses; we have Advanced Placement courses, so that students will come out here prepared for college no matter what.
(Many students' voices)
RAUCH: These ninth graders are learning about civic issues in environmental citizenship class. The debate in this session is on whether or not a tennis court should be built on a wetland.
GIRL: No, there's no reason why I should pay him.
BOY 1: I'll get more money if I open up a tennis court. More people will come.
BOY 2: Why don't you just buy a hotel or something, rather than...
RAUCH: Teacher Michele Ashkin has divided the students into groups of 4, where they play the parts of landowners, politicians, and mediators.
ASHKIN: Is he going to vote to protect the wetlands or not?
BOY: To protect them.
BOY: Because we don't have that many wetlands.
BOY: And we should preserve them, because they're helpful.
ASHKIN: What's the other value here that he has?
ASHKIN: Well yes, he definitely has political because he's a senator. But he just said something. What value was he talking about?
RAUCH: The environmental theme is used as a hook throughout the curriculum. Social studies classes will focus on the environmental effects of war to open a lesson on Bosnia. Literature courses will include 'Silent Spring.' And principal Corbluth says the theme is even used to teach computers and art.
CORBLUTH: We're planning to have art electives, one relating to design and planning where students develop an ecological city using models, using computers. We don't want simply little scientists coming out of here.
RAUCH: Of course, the environmental theme doesn't quite fit everywhere. So subjects like Shakespeare and gym are still taught the old fashioned way. But they are working on making math relevant. For students like Shami Dowla, the environmental focus has been a good way to learn traditional skills. She finished her sophomore year with a study on noise and teenagers.
DOWLA: I've had a lot of experience from this, because I have to do some speeches in class, which I think I needed a lot of courage to do. I did surveying, I learned how to do experiments, and I also learned how to write reports.
RAUCH: Shami is part of a diverse student body which consists of blacks, Latinos, and Asians at roughly 30% each. Whites and others make up the remainder. And internships are an integral part of their education. During the school year and the summer, students' projects may take them as far away as Alaska and Lithuania, although most stay in the city doing things like working in the Botanical Gardens in the Bronx or sampling air quality in Central Park. Jeff Cole is the internship coordinator.
COLE: They'll be doing things like controlled burnings at the Conservancy sites. Students work on restoration issues with urban parks. It's a real hands-on oriented project. We also have students working in more activist-oriented positions here in the city.
RAUCH: The school building itself reflects the values of the environmental curriculum. Located a few blocks from the Hudson River in midtown Manhattan, the building was a studio and headquarters for 20th Century Fox in the 1920s. The ornate lobby and auditorium still attest to that history. But most of the rest of that structure has been refurbished with the environment in mind. It features efficient lighting and air conditioning systems, for instance, and the roof is made from recycled tires and includes a vegetable garden. Budget realities kept the school from being a state-of-the-art environmental building, but architect Gene Nemith says that they were able to do a lot by reusing old materials and thinking creatively.
NEMITH: The ceiling, for instance, which is compressed seaweed, and if you look up you could see the little strands of seaweed in it, is much, much more durable than regular ceiling tile.
RAUCH: And those heavy ceiling tiles can't be lifted to hide drugs or weapons as sometimes happens at other schools. Fortunately, this doesn't seem to be a problem here. There are no metal detectors. There is little violence reported and there's even no graffiti. In a system where some inner city schools have high dropout and absentee rates, this high school reported a 92% attendance rate. For students like DeLaina Gumbs, it's this school's safe social environment as well as its curriculum that's been a key to her succeeding here. DeLaina is fearful of what might have happened if she had been forced to attend her Bronx neighborhood school.
GUMBS: I would be, could be dead. I wouldn't do any work, I guess. I don't know if, I mean, college wouldn't be much of a priority to me.
RAUCH: This fall, the High School for Environmental Studies will reach its capacity at 900 to 1,000 students. But its continued success is not a sure thing. This is a special public school without any special public funding, and dramatic city budget cuts have already led to the cancellation of summer classes and may mean a shortened school day in September. But the school has an active fund raising program which supports its environmental courses with money from foundations, corporations, and individuals. That's important to DeLaina Gumbs, who just completed her junior year. Over the summer she's staying in Bar Harbor, Maine, interning on a study on why sharks don't get cancer. DeLaina considers environmental studies vital to herself and the rest of the world.
GUMBS: If you don't do anything about it, like the culture we know, the history we know, everything we know that population, everything, we'd just die. I mean, since we're the stewards of the Earth, you could say, I mean, we make all these horrible decisions. I just want to have a chance to, like, rectify what we've done.
RAUCH: For Living on Earth, I'm Neil Rauch in New York.
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