Thursday, May 10, 2012

Beyond Test Scores: Engaging and Empowering Kids in Community Initiatives

By Stephanie Allen, Project Assistant.

The city of New York has an interesting new way of dealing with its water-quality challenge. Nope, it’s not more storage tanks or deeper tunnels, it’s sixth graders.

Sixth graders at Stephen A. Halsey Junior High School are learning about techniques to prevent stormwater runoff into an antiquated combined sewer system that overflows during heavy rains, spilling raw sewage straight into the Flushing Bay. A partnership between five city schools and the Trust for Public Land enlists the schools’ students to help design and construct new eco-playgrounds that will capture and retain stormwater in order to reduce combined sewer overflows.

Replacing the existing asphalt schoolyards at these schools with more eco-friendly surfaces and ground cover, will indeed help the city with its water quality problem, but this project also has benefits for the schools’ students.

They’re learning environmental science. They’re learning about the drawbacks of impervious surfaces and the importance of using permeable pavers; the ability of trees, shrubs, and other ground cover with deep root systems to draw water deep into the soil; the benefits of collecting water in rain barrels; and the importance of having clean water. They’re learning how to apply the theoretical science they’ve learned from their textbooks to real world problems.

They’re also learning something else, something much, much harder to teach, something that, with our focus on test scores and performance records, we seem to no longer see as under the purview of overburdened public schools and teachers: they’re learning to be better citizens. They’re learning to pay attention to and get involved in projects that will help make their community a better place to live, work, and grow up. They’re learning that little changes that are easy to incorporate can make a big difference both environmentally and socially. School officials and local leaders are empowering these kids to effect change in their communities, showing them that they can use their knowledge and problem solving skills to make a difference.

An important concern of economic development (and urban planning more generally) is the development of tomorrow’s community leaders. I think projects like these are a great place to start. Projects like these involve kids at a young age in community beautification and development efforts, they have tangible effects that kids can be proud of having a hand in producing, and they have the potential for positive impacts on lifelong community participation.

I first read about this project in Tuesday’s New York Times. It’s part of a larger collaboration between the Trust for Public Land and New York City to provide safe places to play within a ten minute walk of every child in the five boroughs. That collaborative program is on target to develop 185 playgrounds and parks over the next few years.