Three years ago, Brad Parker was shocked to discover something about Josephine C. Locke Elementary School, where he has been a teacher since 2005.
“During the 2008-2009 school year, I received an invitation in my mailbox to enter a recycling contest among Chicago Public Schools. The invitation included a link to the school’s Environmental Scorecard, which I didn’t know existed,” explained Parker, a National Board Certified educator who teaches social studies and writing at the north-side elementary school. Among other information, the Environmental Scorecard includes details about a school’s energy consumption, paper use and recycling score.
“When I opened the link to our Scorecard, my heart sank at what I saw there – not only did each Locke student use an average of 1,207 sheets of paper per year, but also, as a school, our recycling score was zero! When I shared this news with my class at the time, a group of eight dedicated seventh graders stepped forward to work with me in creating our school’s first-ever recycling program,” Parker said.
As a first step, Parker applied for and received CPS grants to buy new blue recycling bins for 12 classrooms at the school. With that, the Locke Green Team was born. The group developed a system to track recycling efforts in the school’s sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade classrooms.
Soon the whole school was bitten by the environment bug. Thanks to an ongoing collaboration with the administration and engineering staff and some additional grants from CPS, during the following school year the number of classrooms recycling paper had jumped from 12 to 34 and the Green Team had grown to more than 40 students.
“This initiative was much needed, considering that we are a school of so many – 1,200-plus students – and one that had no history of environmental stewardship. Together, the students and I changed that,” said Parker.
According to Parker, Locke School’s students and staff are now aware of how much paper they use and can identify and address the habits they have that aren’t environment-friendly (e.g., leaving their computers on at night).
“Because of my Green Team’s dedication toward making public awareness posters, class visits, and guided activities with younger classrooms, the entire school community takes more pride in our responsibility to think globally and act locally. Our recycling habits have improved, our paper consumption has decreased, and the amount of requests I get for future Green Team members show that change is happening,” said Parker.
According to 7th grader Viviana, being a part of the Green Team has made her more aware of the environment and ways she can become “greener” in her daily activities.
“There are so many measures that can be taken to become a better child of the Earth; recycling, reducing and reusing. I tell people all the time about being green, some even laugh at me, but in the end I know spreading the word with my team is right. What can I say? We’re a big green happy family. I’ve been recycling aluminum and paper at home ever since I’ve become more aware of the Earth. I take shorter showers and walk/ride my bike to school. If I find garbage on my way to school, I pick it up and throw it away. I even encourage my family to join in. I’ll always be a part of the Green Team even after I graduate from Locke. GO GREEN OR GO HOME!” said Viviana.
After a successful two-year run of recycling paper, Parker and the team decided it was time to extend their influence by introducing new projects and new ways for the growing numbers of budding environmentalists to make a difference. This effort led to the creation of three sub-teams in addition to the ongoing paper recycling program – one focusing on recycling plastic and aluminum; another, called the "Beautification Team," which is charged with cleaning the outside school grounds twice a month; and lastly, a team assigned to write and produce a new student newspaper called the "Locke Green Scene,” which features “green” stories from around the school and media, highlights of the Green Team accomplishments, tips for school and home, and student/teacher interviews.
“Even though my students live on the concrete streets of Chicago, they still are curious about where the sidewalk ends, and I intend to show them the beauty of nature outside the city walls,” said Parker. “They take pride in themselves when they take action, whether that is recycling paper at school or using less electricity at home. I challenge the students to realize that since they’re an important part of this world, why not be a productive and positive one? Why not be a part of a change that makes life better for yourself and others?” he said.
Speaking of “outside the city walls,” last June, Parker was selected as one of 25 teachers from across the United States to travel to Costa Rica through the International Institute of Education and the Toyota International Teachers Program. While in Costa Rica, Parker studied global conservation issues, the environment, and new and innovative ways to encourage students to become stewards of the environment. Even though Parker was far away from Chicago, his students were never far from his mind. In fact, while he was in Costa Rica, he wrote an interactive blog and posted daily journals and photos for his students to follow. “The best thing about my experience in Costa Rica was that it inspired me to pursue bigger and better things for the Green Team,” Parker said.
Gabriel, one of Parker’s 7th-grade students and Green Team member, is up for the challenge. “This program has shown me that, although caring for the planet is a lot of work, the effect is reward enough. It gives me hope that people actually care and that we can save the planet. Our environment is our home, and it’s what keeps us alive. We have taken so much for granted, and we must cut down on our use of the planet while it heals itself. If we don't care for the environment, then who will?”