Local Trend Setters: Thurston Elementary Green Team Programs

We rarely visit a school these days that does not have a green team.  These student groups can take many forms but share a common purpose – to take a leadership role on school projects to investigate or address environmental issues.  This month we are pleased to share the story of the Green Team at Ann Arbor’s Thurston Elementary, where students have made participation in this organization both a privilege and responsibility.  As school leaders, members of the green team do more than pilot environmental initiatives, they do so in a way that models good citizenship.  However the evolution of Thurston’s Green Team did not happen overnight, and their story can both inspire and instruct the rest of us to keep refining our efforts to build this kind of community spirit and environmental ethic in our youth.

The green team program was started 7 years ago by a parent and has developed into a volunteer, student-led program with two supervising teachers.  Founded on a desire to reduce the amount of waste in Thurston’s cafeteria, their work has grown into an environmental stewardship program with many dimensions.  Green team activities include monitoring recycling and composting at all lunches, student gardening, landscaping and invasive species removal on school property, as well as building an outdoor classroom area. 

Establishing recycling and composting at Thurston started out slow.  In 2009, the City of Ann Arbor had services, but gaining school access was not straightforward. Mrs. Manthley, one of the original founders and now one of the overseeing teachers, described the difficulties the school faced in gaining access to that system and its rules.  At first, the school was only able to recycle plastics, clean from food waste, as well as white napkins, but not brown ones. In the early days, the school was not able to recycle milk cartons or compost meat products. And a short while after the program began, the guidelines changed, allowing for expansion in terms of what could be recycled, but posing new challenges for making sure everyone stayed informed.

Today the school recycles everything from plastic to paper to aluminum cans and composts all food scraps. The city provides curbside service for both the recycling and compost.  In addition, the students coordinated the collection of juice pouches in 10 lb bundles, which, until recently, were recycled through TerraCycle, a private agency.  Each year the City of Ann Arbor supports Thurston’s efforts to keep students and staff informed about solid waste issues by sponsoring free environmental education workshops, including programs on composting, recycling, zero waste, and pollution prevention, led by Ecology Center educators.  Each year 250 of these programs are delivered in Ann Arbor’s public and private schools.

The 4th and 5th-grade students who are dedicated to Thurston’s green team demonstrate their passion and commitment on a daily basis. Instead of joining their peers on the playground at recess, they donate their time to help guide students in the lunchroom on what can and cannot be recycled/composted. At school events such as Bagel Fridays and the Fun Run, an annual fundraiser, you will find them speaking with students and visitors in order to make sure napkins and popsicle sticks are thrown in the correct bin. The fifth-grade volunteers spend the second half of the year training third graders how to become green team leaders. Each year the adult supervisors plan a special holiday party and a field trip for the green team to show appreciation for their effort.  But Mrs. Manthley is quick to point out that the field trip is not what motivates them. “These students are a part of the green team because they truly care, and they are dedicated to making a difference at their school.“

The green team program at Thurston Elementary has been a huge success with the students and serves as a model for other schools that desire to take on an environmental program such as this. Starting a green team may be difficult, as Mrs. Manthley can attest, but it also brings great benefits to the students who choose to take part.  The volunteer experience teaches them a variety of organization and communication skills, creates friendships, and gives them the personal knowledge that their actions can make a positive difference in the world.

While I was at Thurston Elementary I asked Mrs. Manthley how she hoped to improve the program in the future and how we might get other schools to consider implementing these types of programs. She noted the importance of connecting the green team program with the school curriculum so that the learning can be better shared with all students.  The school’s new outside classroom is one way the green team is helping to take Thurston in this direction.  Spending time surrounded by the vegetable, rain, and butterfly gardens, which the green team is helping to design and construct, helps to create daily opportunities to connect learning to the natural world. Mrs. Manthley noted the value in having all students understand the meaning and implications behind recycling and get hands-on experience with the topic.  In Ann Arbor, the sixth-grade curriculum has included a trip to the Ann Arbor’s Recycling Facility, but education about recycling and composting could start long before this field trip through a program like the green team.  

Mrs. Manthley also had some suggestions specific to implementing recycling programs in other schools. From her personal experience, Mrs. Manthley says that easy access to information about your local government’s waste management system is key. Schools shouldn’t have to jump through hoops or be given a different set of guidelines by each person they talk to. She also suggested an incentive program for schools that choose to implement recycling/composting. The incentives could be a system in which points are tallied for each pound of recycling/compost, then the points turn into savings on items that schools buy frequently. Mrs. Manthley also offered the idea of a system that gives schools a small amount of money equivalent to what they are saving the city/state by recycling at lunch. Whether the money goes directly to the school that is recycling or back into the budget for all local schools doesn’t matter, what matters is that this is an incentive for schools to start a recycling and composting program.           

If you have questions about this article contact katy@ecocenter.org.

Collaborators: Katy Adams, Sydni Jourban, and Camille Hollins 

Published on January 12, 2017