Green & Healthy Schools Academy Profile: Spectrum Charter School

Spectrum Charter School is one of nine schools/school districts participating in the inaugural class of GBA’s Green & Healthy Schools Academy (GHSA).  Located in Monroeville, Spectrum has been serving 13- to 21-year-old students since 1999.

The school’s mission is to meet the needs of students who do not learn well in typical classroom settings due to unique cognitive, communication, and sensory challenges, including those with autism spectrum disorders.

Last fall, I visited the school to learn more about its work with GHSA and spoke with teachers Norma Farruggia and Amber Simcic.  I was surprised to learn how much they had already woven sustainability, which seems to truly be part of their daily lives, into Spectrum’s culture!  Below is a summary of what I learned on my visit.

Michelle Johnson is the CEO at Spectrum and she invited me to speak with Norma and Amber, two teachers who have been very involved in GHSA.  I started our conversation by asking them why their school became involved with our program.

“Michelle was personally passionate about creating a healthy school for the kids,” Amber told me, “and we really wanted to offer education on sustainability so it could be something the kids could carry out in their daily lives beyond the school.”

For those who aren’t aware, participants in GHSA have a very unique opportunity to attend our Inspire Speakers Series events each month and then spend the following day in a private workshop with the speaker(s).  Jealous?  Me, too!  This means that the teachers and administrators (and sometimes the students) get one-on-one time with the likes of David Orr, Majora Carter, George Bandy, David Sobel, Stephen Ritz, and Natalie Jeremijenko.  (Want to learn more about this part of their experience?  Check out GHSA member Shannon Merenstein’s guest blog post here.)

So what were Amber and Norma’s favorite Inspire Speakers Series events?

Amber found George Bandy’s lecture to be the most applicable to her experiences.  (George, who is now chair of the U.S. Green Building Council, came to Pittsburgh from his home in Atlanta to kick-off the first Inspire Speakers Series event in 2012.)  “I especially liked that he said we need to meet people where they are (in terms of sustainability education) and bring it to them on their level,” she says.  “We need to make it real to them so they can best understand why it’s important.  This is especially true when it comes to kids.”

Norma liked Stephen Ritz’s lecture the best.  “He was truly inspiring and really re-fueled my passion,” she recalls. Anyone else who attended that lecture will likely recall Stephen’s unbridled enthusiasm and sheer excitement for the work he does at his school in the Bronx.

GHSA is a two-year program and my visit to Spectrum came at the beginning of the second year.  The program includes monthly workshops (following the Inspire Speakers Series, as mentioned above) where participants share challenges, ideas, and success stories in order to motivate and assist each other in making lasting changes at their schools.  Goals and projects include those related to curriculum, facility use, and community engagement. Participants also share their objectives for each year to stay accountable.  

Every single class at Spectrum Charter School did a sustainability-focused project last year.

So what are some accomplishments that Norma and Amber want to highlight from their first year in the program?  It turns out that EVERY SINGLE class did some type of sustainably focused project last year.  Here are a few examples:

• Hosted a used book sale
• Provided a gift-wrapping service using recycled and donated wrapping paper
• Welcomed Mark Dixon (local filmmaker) for a presentation of his film, “YERT”
• Planted bean sprouts in used CD cases purchased from the Pittsburgh Center for Re-Use
• Performed a life-cycle analysis on an apple
• Did a price comparison on a traditional versus an all-organic Thanksgiving feast
• Performed an energy audit
• And, my favorite was something Norma and Amber described as “re-skilling,” which can be thought of as the art of learning to do things the way they used to be done.  For example, students created their own journals, concocted green cleaning supplies, planted herbs, baked bread, and made butter.  They learned about honey and made their own granola.  They even did yarn work and knitting, with the boys in one class making an afghan for a Lincoln Park Community Center member.

This practice reminds me of the book Plenitude by Juliet Schor, in which she describes “new ways to provide livelihood include self-reliance (making and doing for yourself), small businesses, sharing assets, and trading services within communities.”  Schor argues that time, self-reliance, consumption, income diversity, and connection are all important assets in the changing economy.  Spectrum Charter School is using “re-skilling” as a way to demonstrate a do-it-yourself attitude that simultaneously creates a different view of consumerism and materials that are used to create things.  This is a multi-layered perspective of sustainability that impresses me.

So, how is Spectrum moving forward with GHSA and what are they working on this year?  In addition to continuing several projects from their first year, Amber and Norma described some of their new ventures.

“We’re starting a monthly local produce project, determining what is in season and finding recipes to use that produce,” says Amber.  “Also, at the middle school level, each class will have a compost custodian.  We just started worm composting and the kids are really into it.  We’re doing a Green Apple Day of Service project about the science of garbage.  Students will soon be planting seeds in mini-greenhouses, then putting those plants in rain barrels equipped with planters, continuing with re-skilling activities, and participating in the National Wildlife Federation’s Eco-Schools program.”

“We received notice that Citizen Power is awarding our school a $500 green grant to purchase a weather station for students to learn first-hand the impact of weather variations on energy consumption and identify energy usage influencing factors.  We also plan to start our Living Building Challenge Project, Phases I and II.”  

It’s been really helpful to be a part of a group with other schools.

What advice do Norma and Amber have for other schools that want to incorporate sustainability into their cultures? They say it’s good practice to get kids involved in decision-making.  Spectrum has a GHSA team composed of three students that meets internally once a month.  They help make decisions and also take information back to their peers.  “It’s been amazing to see the kids doing some of these activities such as composting and recycling on their own.  They’re teaching other students about our green school activities, including monitoring student and staff energy usage!”

Finally, I asked Norma and Amber how GHSA has impacted them so far.  “It’s been really helpful to be part of a group with other schools and interesting to hear what everyone else is doing,” they say.  “Our participation has definitely added to the quality of our school.”

Thanks to Michelle, Norma, and Amber for sharing their stories with us!


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