Starting Small: Environmental Sustainability in the City

There’s a small slice of countryside right off bustling Ashland Avenue in the Lakeview neighborhood, courtesy of Principal Catherine Plocher at Burley School. A flock of chickens cluck outside of the school, bumblebees buzz by the main entrance on their way to the pollinator garden, and worms wriggle around in compost barrels. “I’m a big environmentalist,” says Catherine. She hopes introducing small aspects of sustainability will deepen her students’ learning and motivate them to be environmentalists, too.

“Sometimes people, and not just children, think that if you can’t do something big, you can’t do anything at all,” says Catherine. “You don’t have to send a bunch of money or chain yourself to a tree to save the rainforest.”

So, Catherine started small. She runs a Sustainability Club whose members planted a tiny garden with eggplant, kale, tomatoes and a handful other vegetables. They’re trying to grow popcorn plants this year. Students use fertilizer from the three composting barrels to help the plants grow. They tend to the chickens and harvest eggs to sell. The beautiful, multicolored eggs are packaged in donated cartons with “Burley” written in Sharpie on the top. People pay whatever they’re able, and all proceeds go directly back into environmental programing.

Bee hives are next on Catherine’s wish list. To address the problem of the mass die-off of honeybees, Burley received a grant to plant a pollinator garden. However, Catherine did not anticipate how fearful people were of bees.“Even adults are afraid of honeybees,” she says. “They envision bees chasing people down the street and stinging them.”

Catherine learned that she needed to educate both students and their families. She prepares videos and packets on the importance of pollinators like bees, and she feels like the message is getting through to students and families. “If you’re going to plant something in your yard, maybe plant a pollinator plant or two,” she stresses. “If everyone does something, it makes a difference. You don’t have to plant a whole field.”

Environmentalism is close to Catherine’s heart, but her real message is about problem solving. New in the 2017-18 school year, Burley will have a “makers’ space” — a whole room dedicated to students solving problems in their communities. Through their STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) class, all students — kindergarten through eighth grade — will focus on problem solving in their own communities.

In the meantime, Catherine is tackling the environmental problem of energy consumption. Burley will have four solar panels installed on the roof by early fall.

“For me, it’s symbolic,” Catherine says. “They’re only going to produce enough energy to power a classroom, but it’s something.” She hopes it will inspire her students to do a little more for the environment, too. “It’s more than turning off the water when you brush your teeth,” she says.

Catherine hopes to embed in her students a sense of social responsibility so that they can one day solve the world’s problems, little by little.