An Ecological Initiative: How Cheverus High School is Making an Impact on Climate Change

By Mike Benigno

Caring for our environment may seem like a daunting task. Even with the best intentions, it is often difficult to come up with clear ways to make lasting differences in our surroundings, but with ingenuity, foresight and planning, Jesuit high school students and staff are planning to curb climate change in a major way.

Inspired by presentations at the 2014 Ignatian Family Teach-In, three faculty members from Cheverus High School in Portland, Maine, saw an opportunity to reshape the school community’s ecological efforts to minimize their contribution to climate change.

Data shows that the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than most other ocean regions, and Portland (a city more ecologically conscious than many others) has already embarked on a citywide climate initiative, stemming back to 2006.

The initiative that Mary King, Cicy Po and Helene Adams, teachers in the theology and the science departments, envisioned would be a multi-faceted, school-wide program with an intentional focus on climate change awareness and institutional change. First, King, Po and Adams needed a way to get the attention of fellow staff members and a plan to enlist others to help amplify potential results.

Creating Allies

Original student artwork at Cheverus like this painting by Ben Adams, a sophomore, reflected scenes from Parched by Georgia Clark.
With backing from school administrators, King, Po and Adams hosted a full-day, in-service training for faculty that focused on climate change and that served as a follow-up to a schoolwide summer reading of Parched by Georgia Clark, a fictional work that envisions a world where water is a scarce commodity.

The in-service day featured several presentations focusing on different aspects of climate change, from an overview of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, to a glimpse into the current political process.

“We had staff members who fell all along the spectrum when it came to climate change,” King said. “Everyone was genuinely concerned for the state of our environment, but not all were convinced about the human causes or dramatic consequences of the warming. The challenge was seeing how we can bring this to our faculty and encourage them to see how this relates to their subject matter. Then, finding ways they could bring that to their students.”

Prompts were given to members of each academic department, and they were asked to create a mini lesson for students during the upcoming year. The music department composed an environmentally aware song; the math department focused on the math behind climate change; fine arts created a 2-D climate change logo; and English teachers suggested creative writing prompts based on student artwork. To drive home the planning session, the events were followed by a lunch exclusively comprising locally sourced food, and water served from pitchers instead of single-use plastic bottles.

Stewardship as a Mission

Garbage to Garden, created by a 2003 Cheverus graduate, turns food scraps into usable compost for customers in Portland, Maine, and the surrounding areas.
A central challenge would be actually implementing change amidst a school calendar and a workload that was already approaching full.

Throughout the school year, teachers have been approaching Ms. King and pointing out connections and insights they discovered between their curriculum and climate change. Some faculty in the theology department screened the film Tapped, which points out the resources used in order to produce just one plastic bottle of water, and they effected a department-wide ban of single-use water bottles.

The school also officially began its first year partnering with Garbage to Garden, a company created in 2012 by Tyler Frank, a 2003 Cheverus graduate. Garbage to Garden provides customers with lidded buckets for food scraps that are picked up on a weekly basis. In return, the organization offers compost to Portland and surrounding towns. The compost is free to patrons, but is sometimes sold or donated to community gardens and schools. Mixed-stream recycling centers were also introduced to the school, which encouraged students to separate plastic and paper recycling items from trash destined for landfill.

“The recycling centers have created an intentionality that hadn’t been there before. Educating our community about responsible environmental stewardship on a daily basis speaks to the Grad-at-Grad and what it means to be a Christian leader,” said Rodger Cilley, assistant principal at Cheverus.

As environmental consciousness gained momentum, teachers and department leaders were taking it on themselves to think about other ways to institutionalize these changes. The science department decided to completely re-create the freshman science curriculum to focus on ways to become better citizen-scientists. “We became pretty convinced that we really were changing the hearts of colleagues and staff who previously didn’t really see climate change as a human justice issue,” King said.

The Ignatian Carbon Challenge

Cheverus staff and administrators took part in an all-day faculty in-service that focused on climate change awareness.
In an effort to prompt reflection and action among other schools in the Jesuit network, King, Po and Adams have created the Ignatian Carbon Challenge. The Challenge will be a means for Jesuit secondary and pre-secondary schools to address climate change by comparing progress across Jesuit middle and high schools. When the program launches in fall 2016, the challenge will use monthly prompts to inspire, empower and motivate schools and individuals to reduce waste and emissions.

Schools that participate will investigate their own consumption patterns, benchmark the ways they contribute to the environmental crisis and learn concrete ways to mitigate waste and emissions, while learning about climate change in their own local contexts.

Challenges include going a whole week without using Ziploc bags for lunches, not wasting any food for two whole days, listening to a climatechange podcast and researching the sustainability practices of people’s favorite brand-name clothing companies.

The Challenge is a mechanism to help students and staff recognize their complicity in climate change and environmental justice. However, active participation will foster hope in the capacity to make efficacious change, the planners wrote. Schools and individuals will also realize the spiritual and temporal benefits that come with making sustainable choices, and will understand how their choices around consumption relate to Catholic Social Teaching, Christ’s gospel message and the themes of Laudato Si’.

“We hope the Challenge will help our schools move from thinking about sustainability as an ‘add-on’ or just a kind thing to do, to an integral part of our mission, identity and responsibility as a Jesuit School in the year 2016,” King said.

Sample the Ignatian Carbon Challenge

The Ignatian Carbon Challenge empowers participants to minimize their impact on climate change and promote environmental justice. Five sample challenges for readers to consider include:

  1. Going two whole days without wasting any food at all
  2. Stop purchasing disposable plastic water bottles
  3. Saying grace before dinner, pausing to pray silently for those who picked and produced your food
  4. Implementing a one-light-per-person-per-room policy in your home
  5. Become the ecology officer at your workplace and implement mixedstream recycling

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