Eco-friendly at Waters

7/30/2008 The Chicago Journal

Eco-friendly at Waters
Waters students craft plan for campus overhaul

Contributing Reporter

Construction crews will be ripping up the massive asphalt lot that surrounds Waters Elementary School, 4540 N. Campbell, this summer and replacing it with a new playfield, eco-friendly parking spaces and lots of green space. Some former students came up with the idea.

“This is an exciting project because it started a couple of years ago when the eighth graders made a film about how asphalt wasn’t good for the environment,” said Julie Peterson, the school’s Media Lab Director.

Peterson is among an innovative team of teachers and mentors cultivating an army of young environmental activists at Waters.

According to Peters, two years ago, the outgoing eighth-graders conducted a research project to find ways to protect the Chicago River, located just blocks away from the school. Their research led them to the unexpected discovery that their own campus was a major contributor of pollutants in the local branch of the river.

That’s because the rainwater that fell on the school lot was flowing directly into the sewer, picking up oil, gas and other chemicals along its path. The phenomenon, which occurs on all traditional, non-porous asphalt surfaces, caused the sewer system to overflow into the river during heavy rains.

This summer, that field of asphalt will be replaced with permeable pavement, allowing the rainwater to pass into the soil. Around it, crews will install an athletic field of synthetic turf made with recycled rubber. They also will add to the school’s green space, planting native species and constructing bioswales-small angles in the land that are filled with plants able to absorb large amounts of water-as a means of naturally managing excessive rainfall.

The project, which broke ground in June, is just one component of a massive, ongoing effort to make Waters Elementary more sustainable. In the meantime, it is making students and teachers there more and environmentally-aware and proactive in their conservation and restoration efforts.

“That’s what we strive to do here,” said Waters Principal Titia Kipp. “We want them to be active citizens.”

Kipp said the Waters staff does that by educating the kids about the world around them and challenging them to find ways to make positive change.

“We don’t do things with the kids just to do them, but we want it to affect them so that they will bring home what they have learned and live it,” Kipp said.

The efforts also are buoyed by a dedicated team of teachers and local volunteers who work in the community garden and take time to teach children. Foremost among them is Pete Leki, a trained steward with the North Branch Restoration Project and former Waters parent who continues to work as the school’s unpaid ecology program director.

In the early 1990s, he was among a group of community members who pioneered the creation of the native prairie and organic community garden that now spans an entire block. He continues to lead field trips to the Sauganash Prairie Grove, near Foster and Kilbourn, and works to find creative ways to turn the kids onto a greener lifestyle.

The staff has also integrated ecology into their curriculum. Their efforts won the school the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum’s Educational Leader Award in 2003.

And, in a little over a year, the teachers will have even more material to work with. With the support of Ald. Gene Schulter (47th Ward), the school recently secured $4 million in capital improvement funds to make the school, built in 1911, more sustainable. The renovations will include on-site recycling stations, rain barrels to collect water for the garden and benches made from recycled materials. They also will construct a mutli-purpose annex with a green roof, a high efficiency HVAC system and solar panels.

Kipp said the new annex, which will become the new school cafeteria, also will feature an eco-friendly dishwashing center, the fruit of another student-run campaign. In November 2007, a group of students, in conjunction with a City Conservation Club, conducted a school-wide waste survey. They asked students, faculty and staff to separate their garbage. They collected fruit and vegetable waste for compost in the garden, recyclables, uneaten fruit and unopened packaged food for redistribution.

A group of kids in the school’s media lab documented the experiment and examined one result of the survey-the 400 non-recyclable Styrofoam trays, made from petroleum, that were thrown away. Their short documentary, “What a Waste,” helped galvanize support for doing away with the school’s traditional Styrofoam trays and replacing them with reusable, washable alternatives.

They are hoping the film, now posted on YouTube, will help inspire other CPS schools to consider ditching their own Styrofoam trays and opting for a more eco-friendly alternative.

Through the work done in the media lab, the students also are learning to harness the power of the media and documentary filmmaking to bolster their eco-conscious campaigns and hold public officials accountable. Another short film on the media lab’s YouTube page shows a public meeting held last winter, where city officials assured community members that the upcoming construction project will not damage their gardens.

The school was given a $10,000 grant in June from the Bayer USA Foundation to keep its media lab online during summer break, so students can continue to document the transformation of the school and hold officials accountable.

“The kids will be making sure the construction project respects and protects the pre-existing gardens,” Peterson said. “We love our garden. It’s a labor of love, all created and maintained by students and families.”