The day before winter holiday break, teachers and students at The Greene School in West Greenwich are not counting down minutes and seconds before vacation; they are wrapping up intensive one-week enrichment classes.
In one class students discuss plans for the school display at the Rhode Island Spring Flower and Garden Show in February.
In another, students summarize what they have learned about sustainable catches of fish, or species that could be harvested regularly without depleting resources. Among their experiences were trips to the Mystic Aquarium and interviews with fishermen.
“We are the only charter high school in the state devoted to the study of the environment,” explained Ms. Deanna Duncan, Head of School and Masters Degree Science Educator of this publicly-funded school.
And in its second year The Greene School, currently with 126 students from 16 different school districts in Grades 9-11, has comfortably settled into a temporarily home.
Greene offers traditional classes in English, history, math, visual arts, humanities, foreign languages and more. And students with special needs are also accommodated. But every course is interwoven around an environmental theme.
The school must follow Rhode Island Department of Education requirements for a rigorous and innovative curriculum and meet high performance standards and expectations as a foundation for post-secondary opportunities.
“We are an Expeditionary Learning School,” said Duncan, who’s helped established and create science-based curriculums for three charter schools in her 28-year teaching career.
She is proud of a committed staff who bring so many different skills and life experiences to the school.
“It is a non-traditional school with an international environmental focus,” she added. “We concentrate on local and global stewardship of the earth with an approach that inspires awe for the environment and a close relationship with the natural world around us.”
The ‘green’ accent even extends to a small chicken shed and yard maintained by students, yielding eggs that are included in the school menu.
“Most aspects of the school are designed by the students,” said junior Amanda Nelson, of West Greenwich. “It’s just so totally different. It’s like we’re making the school our own.”
Small ‘crews’ of same-grade students meet briefly each morning and stay together for four years. And each grade embarks on a fall wilderness experience in the fall. “That helps us to bond so much,” Amanda said of her four-day “team-building” trek.
Local stewardship by Greene student includes recycling metal and electronics, running in community races for charities and even teaching younger students in other schools about the environment.
“Once intensive classes are finished, we debrief the students to see what they’ve learned,” said sophomore Allie Alvarez of Providence on the Leadership Crew. “We want to be a resource on helping students learn and grow. We even stayed over two nights in a row in the school to discuss how we can be a better community as a whole.”
Alvarez, also the Student Government President, takes that role seriously, too. “That helps us to be stewards of our own school.”
Global stewardship at the Greene School takes a bold step forward soon.
“Fourteen of our students are going to Shanghai and we will host 14 students from their school to study the environment and cultures of each country,” she said. “Our Chinese language teacher (Ms. Xu), who used to teach in Shanghai, helped to arrange this.”
The use of modern technology by everyone in this teaching and learning community is embraced. Laptops, Kindles and widespread use of social media and internet usage through texting or other means is also encouraged.
Last year, as part of a sustainable farming class, Amanda became a cook. “I learned how to make Lobster Newburg and corn cob pancakes for the school,” she explained. “I learned a lot from a Master Chef before I made some for the Board of Trustees. I got a lot of positive feedback from my peers. They all loved it!”
Sophomore Andrew Presley, of Westerly, said the school “presents a different way of learning about a subject, hands-on environmental learning. “I love coming to school,” he added. He considers himself “lucky” to be a Greene student, winning a place in a lottery from a waiting list. “Now I’m even doing well in math and I’m not sure I want my parents to know that.”
With as many as 210 students expected to be in Grades 9-12 by 2012-2013, plans are for a new school to be designed and built at the nearby 2,300-acre Alton Jones campus of the University of Rhode Island, where environmental education has been taught to schoolchildren for decades.
“Our (non-profit sponsor) is the Audubon Society of Rhode Island,” Duncan said of the important support the school obtained to fully carry out its major mission.
“We like to give students ownership of what they learn and provide relevance and meaning to what they learn,” she added. “But we want them to be problem solvers and critical thinkers. Hopefully, they will be lifelong learners and always stay excited about learning.”
And that is what this ground-breaking school appears to be doing.
“This is not for everyone,” said Amanda of this unique and intimate school. “I’m really happy. I love it here. It gives us different ways of learning. And there are always surprises.”