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Environmental Charter Schools: Where Students Drive Change

An Interview with Alison Suffet Diaz

Alison Suffet Diaz is the Founder and Executive Director of Environmental Charter Schools (ECS), a growing network of schools that provides a meaningful education for youth in the underserved communities of South Los Angeles. She will be the keynote speaker in the opening session of the 2017 Green California Schools and Community Colleges Summit, which will take place November 28-29 at the Pasadena Convention Center.

How did you come to create a charter school?

When I was growing up, I saw lots of things in the classroom through a child’s eyes that I didn’t think were right. I always thought, “Oh, wow. That’s not fair. One day I want to fix that.” Once I started teaching, I realized those things hadn’t gone away, and I wanted to figure out a way to do it better.

When I was in law school, I had the opportunity to teach kids about their constitutional rights, and I fell in love with teaching. I saw firsthand just how many students fall through the cracks in large, bureaucratic, impersonal schools. Schools often lacked the ability to foster a supportive community for their students, link academic content to life and careers beyond the classroom, and were failing to engage students that could have otherwise achieved a high degree of success.

Never dreaming I would found a school, I earned my teaching credentials from Cal State Dominguez Hills, and landed a full-time teaching social science at Leuzinger High School, where I taught for eight years. While there, I created a school within a school; a California Partnership Academy called Environmental Careers Academy (ECA).

The performance of the students who were in ECA soared and in 1999, I began my path toward opening a Charter School, Environmental Charter High School.

Our founding team researched factors associated with successful educational turnarounds, and concluded that when students were informed and empowered to make change in their own communities, it positively impacted their academic achievement, pursuit of higher education and their desire to further their impact in the world.

This laid the groundwork for the ECS best practice model – a small community school paired with an interdisciplinary curriculum and authentic assessment, environmental and experiential learning and community partnerships. Environmental Charter High School (ECHS) was developed with these best practices in mind and opened in 2001 with an aim to serve students’ needs not typically addressed in the larger high schools.

These best practices inform every element of the ECS experience, and have contributed to the institutions’ success. When ECS opened its doors, it had only 100 students and four classrooms. From 2001 to 2005, enrollment grew and it became clear that the ECHS model was producing significant academic gains. The community demand for an “ECHS-like” learning environment serving lower grade levels increased, and Environmental Charter Middle School – Gardena opened in August 2010. ECS’ third location, Environmental Charter Middle School – Inglewood, later opened in 2013.

 

Did you intend to focus on the environment from the beginning of your plans?

Since its inception, ECS has provided students with unique learning experiences that utilize environmental service learning to inspire students to find authentic meaning in their studies.  Since its inception, ECS has provided students with unique learning experiences that utilize environmental service learning to inspire students to find authentic meaning in their studies.

 

Your students become involved in projects with real-world outcomes, well beyond exercises that simply demonstrate green concepts. Why is that important?

We realized that we had to get our students to care — to care about themselves, their future, their family, their community, their environment and the environment that their kids and grandkids will inherit. Then, we had to show them how what we were teaching them in school had to do with these things that they cared about. We have found that the two tasks actually form a virtuous circle — the more they learn, the more they care and the more they care, the more they want to learn. Usually, textbooks, worksheets, even well-produced videos, won’t do the trick.

Our students are builders, investigators, critical thinkers, dancers, gardeners, public speakers, activists, musicians, and community leaders. And any of them would tell you that our campus is safe, their teachers feel like family, they have the freedom to take risks and make mistakes, and it’s because they have fun.

 

How do you help students get their wits around the true extent of our environmental challenges without making the future seem frightening?

We can’t just scare people. It can’t all be doom and gloom. We have to be able to do something about it. We have to feel that we have some ability to make change and to make the world a better place.

Only when students see that they can make a difference do they start to care, so it’s all about figuring out ways to get them to engage. Part of the challenge that we’re having is that we’re part of a very white and green community, and most of the folks that are living in our communities come from a variety of different backgrounds.

How do we inspire people that are different than ourselves to care? How do you get people from not caring about something we care about to care about the same things? Isn’t that the trick to selling any good product or marketing any service? The only way to do that is by talking to them, and working with them, and getting to know them. Once we understand each other challenges and problems, the diversity of thought and opinions spur new and better solutions. We do this by building a community – a community filled with diverse teachers many of whom mirror our students.

 

What kinds of things do you do to connect your facilities programs with your curriculum?

Just steps away from the busiest, fastest freeways in Los Angeles, a lot of campuses look like ours used to-gray, concrete, walled in and busted windows. Our living campus now serves as a safe and vibrant oasis. Fruit trees that serve as free vending machines, vibrant murals that deter graffiti — when a student paints his own mural, he tells others “we don’t tag here.” Our students take care of chickens, and in turn, learn patience and empathy that translates to every relationship.

 

What is your Green Ambassadors program?

At ECS, all students take a Green Ambassadors environmental service-learning class where they learn about food, waste, water, energy, and environmental justice, and take action locally to connect with and improve their community. Beyond that, 10th and 11th graders can take part in the after-school internship where they educate their larger community and serve as “junior consultants.” While conducting sustainability audits, students take their previous knowledge about the California drought, energy efficiency, and waste reduction methods such as composting and recycling to help local businesses reduce their carbon footprint and offer recommendations.

Community partnerships help teachers harness the power of adventure and discovery to engage students in action, leading students to become active community participants. Above all, partnerships provide opportunities to translate students’ academic skills into real-world professional experience, developing young environmental stewards who are well-versed in sustainability no matter what career they go into.

 

Virtually every student who passes through Environmental Charter High School goes on to attend college? How are you accomplishing this?

When students feel powerful and become the drivers of change, we see them succeed. This year, 99.6% of our high school seniors completed their A-G University requirements and a full 97% of ECHS graduates were admitted to a four-year college or university. Most of our students are first and second-generation immigrant youth of color and are the first in their families to go to college.

 

What do you see in the green school movement that gives you hope?

At ECS, we believe that when we allow our students to be the authors of their own narratives, they surpass our wildest expectations.  They are not just the future or the next generation, but the superheroes and leaders of today.

I think we have the solutions, and the kids are definitely bright enough. Our kids are definitely going to be the ones solving the problems, so they inspire me.

Thank you.