Magazine Feature

A Standard to Sustain

Vermont students claim their legacy of participatory democracy.

Snowshoes strapped to her boots, senior Sarah Simpson moves easily along the ski trail behind Harwood Union High School, nestled in the Green Mountains in South Duxbury, Vt. She knows and loves the 85 acres of land surrounding her school, recently named the Harwood Common Ground.

Her cheeks are flame-red on this sub-zero February morning, but Sarah seems oblivious to the cold. She's sharing a vision for new uses of this land that she believes could help students enjoy school more and find purpose in their education. In a few weeks, she'll present her ideas to the Harwood faculty.

In Sarah's vision, the school's wood tech classes are designing and building the sturdy bridges that are needed on the trails. They are also maintaining the trail system, sawing and removing fallen trees like the birch lying across the trail today.

Health and cooking classes are growing food year-round in a greenhouse constructed by students. They are using part of their harvest in class and taking part to the local "food shelf," which supplies food to people with low incomes. A Social Studies/English class is gathering oral histories from longtime area residents.

Throughout Vermont, at every grade level, students like Sarah are finding innovative ways to get involved with issues that challenge their communities and affect their future. The efforts reflect a 2000 state commitment to education for sustainability.

Sustainability lacks a standard definition, although people usually grasp the concept quickly. Its root means "to keep in existence; maintain." It has come to mean the ability to meet present needs without damaging or depleting the environmental, economic or social resources that future generations will need.

Vermont educators often describe sustainability as a lens through which to analyze use of resources. By asking students to build enduring visions for strong communities, sustainability education enhances critical thinking and problem-solving and builds hope for the future.

Education for sustainable development has commanded global attention since 1992, when the United Nations Earth Summit drew the largest gathering of world leaders in history to Rio de Janeiro to reconcile worldwide economic development with environmental protection.

After the conference, a comprehensive plan for global, national and local action, known as Agenda 21, was developed, with one chapter devoted entirely to education for sustainability.

"Agenda 21 has not become a household word in the U.S., but we took it seriously in Vermont," says Megan Camp, program director at Shelburne Farms, a nonprofit environmental education center that practices sustainable rural land use.

Most exciting to Camp about Agenda 21 was the interconnection of subjects in new ways.

"We already recognized environmental issues, but not social justice or economic issues," Camp says. "Sustainability was a way to bring them all together."

Nonprofits like Shelburne Farms and state agencies concerned with agriculture, wildlife, forests and recreation have a long history of involvement with Vermont schools.

In 1998, when the state's first framework of educational standards was put in place in schools, teachers voiced concerns about the effect state standards would have on teaching and learning. Would there still be time for such things as community studies, environmental and agricultural education, and service learning projects?

With support from the Department of Education, Camp spearheaded an effort by 30 state agencies and nonprofits to hold focus groups and find out what Vermonters thought students should learn in school.

The consortium recommended, and in 2000 the State Board of Education approved, two new standards: "sustainability" and "understanding place."

The standards were naturals for the small, rural state with a history of connection to the land through family farming and a tradition of participatory democracy through annual Town Meetings.

The consortium evolved into Vermont Education for Sustainability (VTEFS), which provides teacher training and support for sustainability education.

"For many of the consortium partners," says Camp, "sustainability was a newfangled word for an old Vermont tradition."

Sustainability education works in different ways at different schools. At Harwood Union High, civics teacher Jean Berthiaume launched the Co/Motion class in 2002. He got the idea for the class, which is open to all grades, from a guide to youth-led social change of the same name.

In Berthiaume's view, the "motion" in the course title is the change a person wants to make in the community. The "co" is the embracing of differing perspectives on the issue that must precede the motion, if the change is to be embraced and "sustained" by the community.

Co/Motion students choose a project by identifying and researching a problem in their school or community. They learn to plan meetings, develop a budget, publicize the project and evaluate their efforts.

In addition to student Sarah Simpson's land-use project, Co/Motion students have tackled difficult social issues. One group has worked to restructure the Gay/Straight Alliance (GSA) and thereby renew student interest in it.

They also organized Diversity Week activities, cutting large red silhouettes of teens and hanging them throughout the school, accompanied by statistics related to minority groups, such as rates of suicide among gay, lesbian and transgender teens. They posted a daily quiz in the front hall, with questions about minority races and religions, answered the next day.

The students are also lobbying to bring in an organization called Outright Vermont to train teachers who are willing to label their rooms as "safe space" for students who want to discuss sexual orientation.

One of the Diversity Week organizers, Jess Savage, says the most useful skill she has gained from her Co/Motion project is respectful communication.

In the past, she says, when she dealt with people who held opposing views, "It was more of a victory kind of thing. Now it's an understanding. … You want to interact on grounds that will make it possible that even if the person doesn't agree with you, you can still respect each other."

For Berthiaume, respect is an essential ingredient in the "glue" that holds the sprawling sustainability concept together: respect for the environment, for social differences and for one's neighbors.

Harwood Union serves about 650 high school students from six nearby towns. Some are blue-collar, others upscale ski communities. Although there is little racial or cultural diversity in the school, students differ in other ways, including the way they dress and their religion, socioeconomic status, heritage, sexual orientation, grade level and academic performance.

As in any school, students may be rejected for any of those factors. Social sustainability involves strengthening bonds within a community that might otherwise be divided by prejudices.

Teachers, too, face prejudices.

Berthiaume has been open about his identity as a gay man in a committed relationship — now a civil union — since he was hired in 1995. Students' respect for him is evident in the classroom and hallways.

But during the 1999-2000 school year, when a state law was being debated that would make same-sex unions legal, the subject of sexual orientation was highly contentious. The school had no established discussion groups in which students might talk about the controversy, and tensions sometimes threatened to break out in fisticuffs.

The ideal venue for addressing the debate turned out to be Berthiaume's civics elective, Creating Sustainable Communities (CSC).

The class was already accustomed to evaluating controversial issues related to the environment, the economy and human rights by reading about them and then discussing and debating all positions in a respectful manner. Through that process, students were able to weigh all views on civil unions and arrive at their own informed opinions.

To help students gain a thorough understanding of each issue, Berthiaume assigns readings and short books but doesn't use a textbook for CSC. The issues studied are local ones related to sustainability, he explains, and they change from year to year.

"I'm always researching, trying to keep up with what's happening in local communities," he says.

Last year, the major issue was the Champion Lands project. After a paper mill corporation in an area called the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont had shut down in 1997, the state was given 22,000 acres in which to establish an ecological reserve.

Land use has always been important to Vermonters, so use of the reserve became the heart of a statewide debate. Should logging, hunting and fishing, other recreational uses and public access be part of the new plan, and if so, to what degree and where?

Berthiaume prepared folders of information about the ecological reserve that included House bills under consideration, Web sites, maps, letters to the editor in newspapers from various parts of Vermont and opinion pieces.

After students formulated their own positions on use of the core reserve, they wrote letters to their state senators and representatives and to editors of their local newspapers. Most heard back from legislators, and many of their letters appeared in the papers.

In place of midterm exams last year, CSC students researched a situation in their community they wanted to change and then chose a way to present their research to the community.

Many did so in booths set up at their local Town Meetings, held throughout the state on the first Tuesday in March. Others made videos for broadcast on their local cable station or sent opinion pieces to newspapers. Proposals included a local teen help-line, river clean-ups and campaigns for support of local farmers and businesses.

Some CSC students felt most empowered by communication with the school board during their study of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. At the time their school did not observe the national holiday commemorating him. The students discussed the best ways of honoring him, with some favoring special events at school that day and others a holiday.

They sent their proposals to school board members, who decided to observe the holiday. Students who favored special activities also got their wish, because last year Harwood Union also held its first Martin Luther King all-school assembly.

CSC students report a new awareness of local and global issues, more discussions with their families about those issues, new strategies they and their families have adopted to conserve resources, new interest in supporting local businesses, and a belief that they can and will make changes in their school and communities.

"CSC gives you the tools to get involved in your community and change it for the better," says sophomore Katurah Zahler.

"Before, I didn't think many people would listen if I spoke out, because I'm a 16-year-old kid," says Nick Eid. "But this class showed me that people will listen."

That kind of change in thinking gives new meaning to the concept of teaching civics, says Principal Robin Pierce. She and Associate Principal John McGuire say that classes like CSC and Co/Motion have made the school a far more tolerant place in recent years.

Students who farm, students who hunt, students with green hair or multiple piercings, students dressed in long capes — all seem able to be more accepting of one another at school.

A recent all-school assembly was a perfect example of the change, McGuire says. Co/Motion students working on the Diversity Week project invited everyone to the school's Common Grounds Café Thursday night for a viewing of "The Laramie Project," a film about the brutal murder of gay student Matthew Shepard.

"The significance wasn't the announcement itself," McGuire says. "It's that there were no behavioral issues related to that announcement. No cat-calling, no talking, just respectful applause. And then we moved on to the next item, a girl singing jazz."

CSC and Co/Motion classes have also influenced the school recycling program, beautification projects, and the school's new Justice Project, says Pierce.

Directed by McGuire, the Justice Project's original goal was replacement of zero tolerance policies with flexible, educational approaches to student misbehavior. With input from administrators, teachers, students and parents and with support from state and private organizations, the initiative now encompasses family conferences, peer mediation and study circles.

In the future, when students have concerns about issues like the civil union law or the ramifications of war or the school dress code, they'll be able to discuss them.

In Berthiaume's mind, those efforts, like CSC and Co/Motion student projects, strengthen the school community, heighten student roles as civic partners, and lead to a better future for their towns — the very essence of sustainability.

"Using sustainability, we can encourage active citizen participation, even by young children," he says. "Democracy doesn't start at 18. Students of all ages can participate in democracy through dialogue on issues and problems within the community."

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