Downtown students become green machine

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May 10, 2004 // UPDATED 1:32 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Kids investigate urban environmental problems -- then get out of the classroom to help fix them

In science class recently, Interdistrict Downtown School students Maddison McCoy, 6, and Adia Singh, 14, rolled up their shirt sleeves and dug into some dirt, carefully transplanting tiny green seedlings into larger plots.

They were meticulous and serious about their work. About 20 other young green-thumbs surrounded them, busily preparing the seedlings for a project designed to green up Downtown.

The students are part of an Urban Stewards program developed by St. Paul-based Eco Education. The yearlong class, which meets every other day, charges 8th-graders at the 10 S. 10th St. school with investigating environmental issues Downtown and devising community projects to do something about the problems they identify.

This year, the middleschoolers decided they would tackle Downtown's green space and air pollution. On May 19, students and volunteers will plant thousands of flowers at Peavey Plaza, the Loring Greenway and near Downtown's entrance to Interstate-35W.

Another group of students sold T-shirts with the phrase "Air Pollution Needs a Solution" at the May 1-2 Living Green Expo at the State Fairgrounds, donating proceeds to the flower-planting project.

Ambitious undertaking

The Interdistrict Downtown School draws students from 10 urban and suburban districts, known as the West Metro Education Program.

The students decided to try to make Downtown a bit greener after going on a few strolls last fall. Then they interviewed experts at the Green Institute, 2801 21st Ave. S., and conducted surveys before agreeing on the massive flower-planting project.

Singh, an 8th-grader from Northeast, said the students learned about the environmental benefits of adding more green space to the pavement-heavy urban core.

"When the rain comes down, it will help filter the pollution," she explained. "We get to learn about environmental stuff we normally wouldn't [learn about] and get to help the community. It's just fun."

Last year, the Urban Stewards students selected a bolder project: They collected hundreds of cigarette butts Downtown and sent boxes of them to Mayor R.T. Rybak's office and cigarette manufacturers.

The students also circulated information to Downtown diners in smoky bars and restaurants about smoke-free establishments.

Bucking the hands-off trend

Susan Peterson, the Urban Stewards teacher, said the class engages students in a different way than their more routine homework assignments and instills leadership skills.

"For some of them, making phone calls to those outside school requires them to think at a higher level. Some of the students feel empowered. ... They see that they can make a difference," Peterson said.

Vicki Halverson, 14, an 8th-grader from Edina, said she got a lot out of the program. She agreed with her teacher's take on the class.

"It's not a normal class," she said. "It's not just sitting at a desk and looking at packets. You're actually doing something about where you live."

During the yearlong project, students identify the issues, narrow down the list to one topic, bring in speakers and then vote on the best way as a class to do something about the issue.

The students also handle most of their project's logistics, such as transplanting the flowers, recruiting extra help and inviting city officials to the flower-planting ceremony.

The process can be challenging, as students come from diverse backgrounds and don't always see eye-to-eye when working together, Peterson said.

As with any group dynamic, some students are more motivated and take on responsibility, while others shy away from taking on work, leaving some feeling resentful, she said.

KEEY (Kids, Education, the Environment and You), a nonprofit based in Northeast Minneapolis, partnered with the school on the flower plantings. KEEY Executive Director Sam Nygren said the students cover several subjects preparing for the final project -- and such "hands-on" classroom projects are becoming more rare in schools.

The Urban Stewards project contrasts with the trend, she said.

"They are doing everything from recruiting the kids to mapping out planting areas. So there is math, science, reading -- everything involved," said Nygren. "They have to determine how many plants we need for this project, and then recruit a number of kids to plant them and get everything happening."

Sarah Riddle, a program coordinator for Eco Education, and Nygren were on hand to oversee the flower transplanting. The two groups are using the Interdistrict project as a model for future schools, hoping to inspire other students to research environmental issues and take a stand.

Said Riddle, "Our mission is to inspire ecologically sound decisions among students."