Alison Diaz, Founder and Executive Director of Environmental Charter Schools, was invited to deliver the keynote speech at the 2013 National Green School Conference. Each year ECS professionals gather at the national gathering of green school leaders. Join us for the 2015 conference in Virginia Beach.
READ HER MOVING SPEECH
I’m so honored to be standing here in front of all you today – teachers, administrators, leaders and of course, students. Each of you has gone out of your way to get here and I know you go out of your way to every day to inspire our nations next generation of leaders.
Fifteen years ago I started this thing called Environmental Charter Schools. I had no idea what I was doing at the time. I left a career as a lawyer to teach High School in South Los Angeles and after a couple of years I realized that the system I was working in wasn’t working. It was dreary, depressing and ineffective.
I dreamt of creating a different kind of school.
It’s been 13 years since I set off and opened a school in a church. The early years were not pretty — I staying up all night working, hiring teachers, begging for money, updating firmware and even plunging toilets.
Now, I can say, I live that dream. Every day I get to work in a different kind of school.
Just last week, a student fell into the living stream while taking a picture of nesting baby hummingbirds, while other students scrambled to reattach a chrysalis that dropped…all while I watched a monarch butterfly emerge.
As Dr. Seuss would put it: “A more differerer (Differndooferous) then the rest …more gribulous more grobulous – our teacher are remarkable – they make up their own rules. They teach us that red and white make pink and more importantly they teach us how to think.”
We now have three schools across Los Angeles and are inspiring teachers and educators across the nation.
We are creating college bound leaders who care about their communities. We are preparing the next generation for Sustainability and Resilience.
How do we do it? Most of you already know the secret.
Think back to your K-12 educational experience. What’s one of your most memorable moments? Something positive – something that makes you smile? I imagine a lot of you said: a favorite teacher, participating on a team or club or in a contest, winning an award or honor, a field trip, knocking it out of the park on a science experiment or winning Student Council election President.
I remember that moment in high school when I was selected by the Principal to serve on the student leadership team. All of a sudden being a “nerd” took on a whole different meaning. I had a new sense of belonging and the experience was empowering and fun.
What ever your moment was, I’d be willing to bet that it falls within at least one of these:
According to William Glasser, these are our Basic Needs. And as educators, if we hope to inspire the next generation of sustainable and resilient leaders, it should be our priority to be creating opportunities for our students to experience each of these feelings often.
Our schools are located in South Los Angeles, our students come from the most marginalized communities in Los Angeles. 73% of our students are Latino, 20% African American and a speckle of others. More than 80% our our students qualify for free and reduced lunch and more than 1/3 of our students didn’t grow up speaking English. Most ECS students will be the first in their family to go to college.
98% of our graduates complete the coursework necessary for admission into a college/university – compared to about 35% statewide. And 90% are admitted 75% go and 73% return for their second year.
Our students are builders, investigators, critical thinkers, dancers, gardeners, public speakers, activists, musicians, and community leaders. And any of them would tell you that our campus is safe, their teachers feel like family, they have the freedom to take risks and make mistakes, and because they have fun!
These are some ways our student would say we do it:
Just steps away from the busiest, fastest freeways in Los Angeles, a lot of campuses look like ours used to……gray, concrete, walled in and busted windows. Our living campus now serves as a safe and vibrant oasis. Fruit trees that serve as free vending machines…vibrant murals that deter graffiti — when a student paints his own mural, he tells others “we don’t tag here.” Our student take care of chickens, and in turn, learn patience and empathy that translates to every relationship.
Love and Belonging: ECS Is Family
We set up an advisory program so that one teacher tracks a student for their entire time at ECS. The Students think: “Our teachers laugh with us, they cry with us, they SEE US. Our teachers stay late, take backpacking trips with us, push us, ask us REAL questions, teach us about college loans and credit card debt…they want to see us live our dreams.”
Fun: At ECS we have fun!
One of our best practices it to incorporate common school-wide experiences based on challenges, problem solving and team building in order to build risk taking, trust and communication. Our students say “We build rockets and robots and race solar boats. We go on group bike rides. Every year our teachers school us at teachers vs. student basketball tournament. We get to snorkel and see the night sky outside the city for the first time”
Our students are solving REAL WORLD problems for which the answers can’t be found in the back of the book. They work in teams and present to authentic audiences like local businesses, community leaders and city councils. The students say: “That was really hard, but we rocked it. I didn’t know my voice mattered so much”
Our students have to be accepted into a college in order to graduate, which means every step of the way we are preparing them — SAT classes, FAFSA parent meetings, and college essays. Students say “I’ll be the first in my family to go to college.” And after they graudate they come back and say “College wasn’t that hard after all…I’m one of the only ones who knew how to work with a lazy team member.”
Every senior gets to chose the focus of their senior thesis. They look at a social injustice and create their own internship opportunity which affords them them the opportunity for hands-on exploration of the issue and solutions. Staff are encouraged to support students in solving local problems. Our students say “I created the Bike Shop, we got the library on campus, we make the yearbook, I make my own clothes.
Here are some examples of the leaders that ECS is creating:
- Kate Spence, class of 2014, traveled to Alaska over winter break to study mercury contamination Alaska.
- Izzy Cortez, class of 2012, seeing a need, founded a Social Justice Office on the CSUDH campus.
- Matt Dang, class 2011, was recruited by Brown University to start a student run bike shop.
- Jordan Howard, class of 2010, is consulting with non profits and corporations to create and facilitate youth engagement initiative.
I was asked to speak with you today on how to prepare the next generation for sustainability and resilience. And I guess my point is that if you forget sustaibility and focus, first, on meeting and exceeding basic human needs: survival, love, freedom, fun and power –teaching people how to care for each other–sustainability and resilience will naturally follow. W
What keeps me going is knowing that I get to work with students that end up being my superheroes. And that makes me feel like a superhero!