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Climate Education Empowers Students to Action

One way that schools can provide climate change education to their students is with some outside help. That’s how Woodland Hills School District in Allegheny County became the first in Pennsylvania to pass a climate change resolution. 

The school district’s climate change efforts first started when Communitopia, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that aims to slow climate change and build resilient communities through education, did a presentation for 8th graders at Woodland Hills last school year. 

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Communitopia’s ready-made climate curriculum is tweaked for each school, according to Katie Modic, executive director. “We call it a climate kit. Everything is reusable,” she said. “It’s laminated so I can just use it again with another group.”

The kit has a huge binder, with a pencil case that has all the tools students need to do the activities in the book. One page is an air quality map of the pollution hot spots in Allegheny County.

“We also have then an overlay, which is just one of those transparencies, that have the major point sources of pollution in Pittsburgh,” Modic said. “And so kids find where their school is, and where they live, and they start to make some connections with some of the air quality issues in our region.”

One source of pollution on the sheet is U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock. That’s why Communitopia reached out to Woodland Hills School District, where many students live in the areas surrounding the plant. Communitopia focuses on environmental justice communities identified by the state, where, because of income and/or race, residents are disproportionately impacted by things like industrial pollution, traffic density and lack of trees.

“We look at the history of when we started to burn fossil fuels, and what started to happen in our atmosphere as a result,” Modic said. She connects the carbon spike with global temperature rise, as well as how burning fossil fuels can impact a community’s health. 

But Modic said teaching climate science and local impacts is just the first part of her 90-minute presentation. “The majority really is about empowering students to find their voice within that, and identify what stands out to them,” she said. 

Students can talk about their lived experiences with pollution and climate change, and then think through solutions. Modic said solutions lift kids out of the doom and gloom of climate change. 

Science teacher Margeaux Everhart, student Tierra Bush, and Woodland Hills HS principal Dr. Phillip Woods. Photo: Kara Holsopple / The Allegheny Front

From the Classroom to Action

At Woodland Hills, civic engagement became the solution portion of the climate class. 8th grade students in the honors science classes wrote letters to the people who represent them, the Woodland Hills school board. They told the board why they were concerned about climate change, and urged them to adopt a resolution to fight it. 

Last July, they did just that. The resolution establishes a climate change committee to recommend district-wide changes, from more climate friendly food service, reducing waste, to engaging with local and state officials on climate policy. 

Margeaux Everhart, the students’ 8th grade science teacher, now oversees a parallel student climate committee that came out of that initial workshop. “It’s something that they are going to hear more and more about as time continues, and it’s something that’s going to affect them over their lifetime,” Everhart said.

Tierra Bush, now in 9th grade at Woodland Hills Senior High School, was in Everhart’s honors science class last year, and wrote to the school board in support of the climate resolution.

“I like the fact that my school is doing it, because not everyone looks at our school as the best. So knowing that my school is one of the first schools to do it, it’s empowering,” Bush said.

Since the Communitopia workshop, Bush said she has continued to learn more about climate change, and talk with her friends about it, including recruiting more students to the climate committee. That initial workshop, she said, helped open her eyes to the bigger picture of climate change, and how it might be impacting her family, including her brother who has asthma.

“I like that my voice can be heard, and that people are actually listening to me, and understanding me,” Bush said. “I’m a child, but, yes, I do want to make a change, and I want to make the change a bigger deal than what it already is.”

Impact of the Climate Group

The climate efforts have also provided students new opportunities, like speaking at a local climate summit — this in a high school that’s gotten bad press for safety and lack of attendance. 

“The reason why some students are not attending school is that they don’t feel like they have a purpose,” said Dr. Phillip Woods, Woodland Hills Senior High School principal. “They don’t feel like they have a place. This program has provided that for students.” 

Woods said he’ll do everything he can to nurture the students’ climate group, including fundraising. According to Woods, having an outside expert like Communitopia come into the school is a big help to get something like the climate initiative started, when schools and teachers have standardized tests and so many other things to do. It’s been a big help to students too.

“We have a lot of students who have been through a lot, and they’ve experienced a lot,” said Woods. “So when we see them wanting to come to school, excited about school and excited about learning ,and excited about teaching others, that’s the true process of learning–when you can teach someone else.”

Everhart said about a dozen students are participating in the informal climate group now.

“I think it’s really important, because this is the first time I have seen a group of students really take ownership of something outside of the classroom, and just run with it,” Everhart said.

What’s Next

Communitopia’s Katie Modic thinks the climate initiative at Woodland Hills is already a success. 

“There are really invested, talented individuals who keep showing up, and with that kind of energy, you can move mountains,” she said. “We couldn’t say at this point in time that we have effectively reduced greenhouse gas emissions by a certain amount, but it’s a work in progress.” 

She’s working with the adult version of Woodland Hills’ climate committee, including school board members, people from the community, the district’s curriculum director and student liaisons. They have been meeting monthly since January, researching climate curriculum recommendations for K through 12, and starting an audit of the school’s operations to eventually improve efficiency and reduce greenhouse gases.  

“You feel really good being part of something that is so critical at this time,” Modic said.

Communitopia’s work is funded by The Heinz Endowments, which also funds The Allegheny Front.

Top photo: Woodland Hills students speak at the p4 Pittsburgh Climate Action Summit at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in October, 2019. Photo courtesy of Communitopia