Eco-school blossoms in Toronto

Cassandra Public School sets a greener example

If you can’t find the students of Mr. Adams’ grade four and five class, check in the bushes behind the school.

No, they aren’t playing hide and seek. They’re in Cassandra Public School’s outdoor classroom.

The classroom was built several years ago as part of the school’s efforts with the Toronto District School Board’s (TDSB) Eco School initiative. Eco Schools work to be environmentally friendly, reducing waste, conserving energy and promoting environmentally-friendly attitudes through the curriculum.

The TDSB worked with 18 organizations to design and implement the program, which began in 2003. Since then, 97 TDSB schools have become certified eco-friendly, following criteria set out in a series of Eco-Schools guidelines. These schools were awarded Eco School certificates at City Hall recently.

Ryan Adams has been a part of the eco-team at Cassandra P.S. since he began teaching two years ago.

“Habitats is a big grade four unit so we get outside using the outdoor classroom, which is neat,” he said. The Habitats unit requires students to study living creatures, their basic needs and their environments.

“It’s nice to be out there for that unit,” Adams said.

The outdoor classroom has 30 stone seats and several maturing trees and shrubs.

Principal Rhoda Potter said it serves as a quiet area on the playground and an alternative teaching area.

“You see them out there doing science or drama,” Potter said. “Or out there reading and doing literacy or sketching.”

The outdoor classroom is just one of the eco-initiatives taking place at Cassandra P.S. The school takes part in all three of the main components of the TDSB’s outlined program.

‘What they dump turns into soil’

Potter said students participate in waste reduction, schoolyard greening and energy conservation. The school has a family-run perennial garden, Walk-to-School Wednesdays and a battery-recycling program. Behind the school, there’s a vegetable garden and a composter. The kindergarten students are responsible for the composter.

“They get to see that what they dump in turns to soil,” Potter explained. “In the spring, they take the soil out and put it on the garden.”

Richard Christie, TDSB’s program co-ordinator of ecological literacy and sustainability, said Cassandra P.S. is a great example of eco-education in action.

“Within eco-schools, we are trying not to just influence what teachers teach and how they teach it,” Christie said. “But also how schools function.”

He added that in addition to the three main areas, schools choose other environmentalist ideals such as menu items.

“Schools that have now been doing the program over a number of years, each year they broaden the breadth of the program,” he said.

Potter said she tries to further her program each year, but her students are actually responsible for many of the school’s “add ons.” Last year, a boy in grade three came to her after recess with an apple core. He said he didn’t know what to do with it.

“‘I can’t put it in the garbage, and I can’t put it in recycling,’” Potter recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, we have a problem.’”

The little boy decided the playground should have a green bin. He became responsible for emptying it, and this year other students have taken on the job.

Potter said this type of visit to her office isn’t rare.

“It’s them taking on the ownership of creating a healthy and caring school environment,” Potter said.

Adams agreed. He said he sees the effects the program has on his students.
“I hear them using the language that they’ve picked up (through the eco-approach) in a science or social studies unit,” he said.

“It brings everything together.”

He said his students get excited to help out their school and the community.
“It helps to create a sense of community in the classroom but also within the school,” Adams added.

At Cassandra P.S, the schoolyard greening has been funded entirely by donations. When they started the greening, pupils wrote letters to each resident on the perimeter of the school. While the letters were intended to simply inform the community of the school’s upcoming project, the residents began sending in donations.

“The (community) looked at how it improved their location as well,” she explained.

Potter said while the donations help, the initiative would benefit from more financial support from the school board and the Ministry of Education.

“(The program) is growing from the grassroots up,” she said. “It would be good to have that support.”

David McRobert, in-house council with the Environmental Commissioner, said that while the Ontario government does little to promote environmental education, programs like the Eco School initiative are setting a good example.

“The school boards (in Ontario) are making progress,” McRobert said. “But they need more (financial) support from the Ministry of Education.”

‘It makes sense to implement it across the province’

He added it would be beneficial to explore how the eco-school initiative could be put into place in schools throughout Ontario. Some components, such as the energy conservation, would be applicable across all school boards, where others would have to be geographically specific.

“If you could design the program so that there was enough flexibility, it would make sense to implement it across the province,” McRobert said. Currently, the TDSB program is voluntary.

Josh Matlow, trustee for St. Paul’s and supporter of the eco-schools initiative, currently has only one certified school in his ward.

“(We have to) find more effective ways to get schools to participate,” he said.

He suggested giving the money a school saves by cutting energy costs back to the school for something they need, such as sports equipment.

While financial backing and further incentives would be helpful, Potter said seeing the difference in her students is incentive enough.

“If you look out on our schoolyard, the students do a very good job of caring,” she said.