Can you talk about how you advocated and created your unique position at Caesar Rodney School District as Environmental Education Specialist?
TK: Growing up I was very involved in my high school environmental group, which ultimately served as a catalyst to me pursuing environmental education as a profession. With more than 20 years of teaching experience in both formal public school education and non-formal education facilities, I have gained a broader perspective in order to cultivate a unique approach to environmental education today.
Environmental education hasn’t always been feasible in Delaware public schools. For several years, I was working with other teachers championing environmental education through after school and summer programs to spur interest among the students. With a strong five years of campaigning for environmental studies in CRSD, we established a foundation for our district to build a program and increase accessibility for students and teachers to increase environmental and sustainability literacy.
As momentum continued in environmental education throughout the state, our Director of Instruction at the time, Dr. Christine Alois, began to explore ideas and opportunities for establishing an innovative district-wide program. She began asking for suggestions and thoughts among our staff about what the next step should be. I advocated that for 21st-century schools it is a necessity to have some sort of sustainability coordinator as part of their staff to manage initiatives from both a sustainability and education perspective for students. I emphasized that in today’s landscape, it’s critical to provide our children with an enduring environmental literacy education, from early childhood through to grade twelve, so they can live sustainably and adequately address 21st-century issues. Based on this feedback, a unique specialist position was created through innovative use of Title IV funds. The position is a hybrid of a sustainability coordinator – someone who teaches about cost-effectiveness related to waste management and energy efficiency – and a non-formal outdoor educator typically employed at local parks and nature centers. Once the position opened, I interviewed and was offered the role as what’s now called the Environmental Education Specialist.
What specific programming have you implemented across the district to help schools go green and become more sustainable?
TK: Environmental education consists of two parts: sustainability education, focused more on resources, and outdoor education, focused on getting us back outdoors. Our basic program infrastructure consists of three types of facilities that align with the USDOE Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) program: outdoor classrooms, community gardens, and compost centers.
In addition, we created a network of student-led EcoTeams to lead initiatives and to be a go-to green school resource. The EcoTeams at each school are run by faculty and staff who volunteer to be sponsors. They help manage facilities we developed in cooperation with school administrators and custodial staff.
Our student groups have developed a number of pilot programs:
As of now, environmental education is not mandated in Delaware as it is in our neighboring state of Maryland. While we initially implemented these three facilities at a couple of schools, we are now expanding and building them at all schools in our district. This will give individual schools the opportunity to create their own personalized programs based on their individual interests in various areas from recycling to gardening.
Congratulations on your 2019 USDOE Green Ribbon School Sustainable District award! Can you tell us more about this award?
TK: We actually won our first USDOE Green Ribbon School (ED-GRS) award in 2017 as a result of EcoTeam action planning at Postlethwait Middle School. We used this milestone to strengthen our district programming by incorporating the three pillars throughout all of our school buildings.
Fast forward to 2019, we have made significant progress in our environmental programming and once again applied for the award for the district overall. Our district has proposed many new initiatives and spearheaded programs at various schools. We have also made efforts to improve our efficiency and decrease our environmental impact that compliments continued efforts such as existing geothermal energy installations, educational solar panel installation, and decreasing electric consumption and cost in some select schools by upgrading to LED lighting operated on motion sensors. Based on our recent work, we are proud recipients of the 2019 USDOE Green Ribbon School Sustainable District award for the entire school district. This award recognizes us for being on the right track and provides us motivation to strive for greater success. We hope to use this award to gain more access to grant funding and spread awareness throughout Delaware.
How have students responded to your green initiatives? How have schools across the district responded to these initiatives?
TK: Each school is a little different, it depends on the kind of leadership there is from the staff and how accessible they feel to green schools resources. We piloted the EcoTeams to provide students opportunities to feel that they are a part of something larger. The EcoTeams have become important components of the schools especially when motivated students graduate from elementary school and move up to middle school, and middle school students move up to high school bringing with them their prior experiences.
Students get excited about the EcoTeams. They love the variety of projects especially getting their hands dirty in the garden. The positive response among students has helped the teacher sponsors grow the programs and increase access in certain areas of interest. I have even had kids ‘pitch’ project ideas to me with full presentations of things they want to do in their school – it’s really great to see!
Do you have any other exciting initiatives underway?
TK: We have a small private school partner, The Jefferson School, down in Georgetown, Delaware. The Jefferson School is able to do a number of experimental type programs that serve as successful models for us to learn from. For example, the school has a giant solar field that will run its entire electric system through a low-interest loan from Energize Delaware. If they lose power, they now have a battery backup that will store energy at their facility. We’re hoping in the next year or two that we’ll have our first major solar array at one of our schools. That’s an exciting initiative.
We’re also having conversations to create a hybridized staffing position that closes the gap between non-formal and formal education. We’re trying to create as much infrastructure as we can on our campuses with these partnerships in mind.
Lastly, we’re working with a new nonprofit in Wilmington, Delaware called Eco-Plastic Products of Delaware. They are taking plastic bags and caps and recycling them right here in New Castle County. We’re partnering with this facility to help them build an education department. We also want to see what’s possible in creating new products that are innovative and even have kids be involved in the design process.
How has Green Building United’s involvement helped you?
TK: Green Building United, Energize Delaware, and the Delaware Pathways to Green Schools Program has helped to fund an Outdoor Classroom and our Reusable Bag Program. They have also been instrumental in connecting us with other schools throughout the state that we can learn from and share ideas. I’m learning now that we can reach out to Green Building United for more expertise. Most of our partners certainly have expertise in various areas, but I can reach out to ask about expertise in areas that are new to us like installing water bottle filling stations or designing newly proposed green structures. Having this resource and network of people is very helpful, especially when applying for grants. Green Building United has helped me through conversations and interviews to lead me to new opportunities.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
TK: We’re all trying to work together and change the region for our kids. We want to create opportunities for our kids as they move from grade to grade, or even school to school, to know that they’re not going to be let down. We want to be a 21st-century school district which we know must incorporate meaningful environmental education programming.
About Todd Klawinski
Todd Klawinski is the Environmental Education Specialist in the Caesar Rodney School District. He serves on the board of Directors for the Delaware Association for Environmental Education (DAEE) and on the Delaware Governor's Recycling Public Advisory Council (RPAC). His personal mission as a professional educator is to “incorporate his enthusiasm for learning, teaching, and being active in promoting integrity and respect for his profession by actively creating analytical, independent, determined, yet fallible children who grow into conservation-minded adults .”