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St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School Hosts Students for Sustainability Conference (S4S)

11 middle schools “got green” at this one-of-a-kind event.

Students from Virginia, D.C., and Maryland joined forces at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School (Alexandria, Va.) for the seventh-annual Students for Sustainability (S4S) Conference this winter. The school welcomed 250 students from 11 middle schools, all working to make their schools a “greener” place. The conference was a day of hands-on education, brainstorming, and bonding to make a difference for environmental sustainability in their schools and communities.

“The middle school students were asking tons of questions and seemed really fascinated,” said Marshall Benjamin, a senior at SSSAS who helped out during the conference. “They got a jump start into looking into the future of the world and what we need to do to change our ways and make a healthier planet. And I think that’s awesome.”

The conference included a keynote speaker and 12 innovative and interactive Green Activity Zones. Keynote speaker Ian Cheney is an Emmy-nominated and Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaker whose projects include “King Corn,” “Big River,” “The Greening of Southie,” “Truck Farm,” “The City Dark,” and “The Search for General Tso.” In 2011 he and collaborator Curt Ellis were awarded the Heinz Award for using humor and innovative programming to engage people about sustainable food. “Creativity is fundamental to making the world more sustainable,” Mr. Cheney said. “We don’t know how the world is going to look in 20, 30, 40, or 50 years, and that’s ok. We need to invent our way there.” He said it’s also important to make it fun. “I don’t think anyone wants to live in a world that doesn’t have humor, levity, or smiles in it, so why should that be absent from our sustainability work?”

The 12 Green Activity Zones were led by teachers and students, as well as St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes alumni and members of the non-profit and for-profit community in environmental fields. Sessions included Harness the Wind (constructing miniature windmills); Craft Wars (creative reuse); How Far Did That Sandwich Travel?; Raptors; Race to Recycle; Green-ify Your Lunch Box; and Gaming for a Sustainable Planet. SSSAS alumnus Chris Newman ‘00, who operates Sylvanaqua Farm, a permaculture farm in Earlysville, Virginia, led an interactive session demonstrating the sustainability advantages of natural farming over industrial farming techniques.

“My favorite part of the conference was making our own wind turbines,” said Thomas, a middle school student from Sandy Spring Friends School in Maryland. “It was cool because you got to experiment with different numbers and shapes of blades, to see how much more energy or less energy they would produce.” Helen, a St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes eighth grade student, said the activities inspired her to spread the word about going green: “I want to share with students that we can incorporate our own passions and interests into informing others about sustainability.”

“Environmental sustainability attracts the enthusiasm and involvement of middle school students,” said Brian Kane, St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes director of environmental stewardship and S4S organizer. He says the conference allows them to network with other like-minded students and empowers them to take positive action, whether at school, at home, or in their communities. “S4S gives students some insights about what they can do as individuals.”

After lunch, students participated in the Green Forum, a fun and educational quiz competition for organic and environmentally friendly prizes. In addition to leading a Green Activity Zone, Magician Jason Goldberg visited tables where he performed magic with an environmental approach. The S4S Conference is waste-free; everything used/served during the day is recycled or composted. The silverware is made from potatoes, and the cups, plates, and napkins are recyclable.

SSSAS eleventh grade student Caroline Curran, junior president of the Upper School Environmental Student Club, which helped facilitate the conference, said one of the most important things students take away from the event is confidence. “Environmental issues can seem a bit daunting and have you feeling like, ‘Whoa, what can we do?’ But coming to a conference like this where there are a lot of like-minded people together around the same age, can really help you be more confident and feel like we can make a difference,” she said.

Mike Risen, director of curriculum and instruction at Norwood School (Bethesda, Md.), found the format perfect for grades 6-8 and watched the excitement build among his students. “The hands-on, small group workshop structure of the conference is a perfect way for students to get engaged in a very personal way with the work. That is very important for connecting with middle school-aged students, who are really growing as responsible, thoughtful citizens.”

St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School started the annual S4S Conference in 2008. It’s the only event of its kind in the Washington, D.C. area, and each year the conference features different topics and presenters. “They can hear about becoming a Bay-friendly school or how they might run an environmental club better. There are some very practical solutions that come out of the day,” Mr. Kane said. For example, he said, to see how much plastic waste your community generates, try collecting plastic water bottles in a public area for just one week. To reduce waste at school, start a composting program by collecting food scraps from your lunchroom and snacks. Starting a school garden can generate hundreds of pounds of produce for your local food assistance centers. Last summer, SSSAS students cultivated and harvested more than 130 pounds of produce from the Upper School garden and transported it to the Arlington Food Assistance Center.

Sustainability is woven into the JK-12 curriculum at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes, where students also participate in clubs, working with the sustainable gardens, greenhouse, recycling programs, and energy-saving projects throughout the year. “We focus on making sustainability part of our culture,” said Mr. Kane. “We don’t think about it as a subset; it’s part of who we are.” The school is particularly focused on decreasing waste and energy use and has reduced its overall carbon footprint by nearly 30 percent since 2008. SSSAS recently installed energy dashboards on campus that display real-time electricity use in its seven major buildings so that the community can see the results of their efforts. The school has dedicated faculty and parent sustainability committees and conducts many sustainable practices, such as using solar panels to power the hot water heaters at the Middle and Upper School campuses, white roofs, trayless dining halls, green landscaping, outdoor education, and active honey bee hives.

SSSAS participates in regional energy-reducing challenges with other schools every year and has consistently ranked in the top standings. The Association of Parents and Teachers hosts an annual electronics, recycling, and document-shredding event for the school and neighborhood, and each spring the school participates in a variety of activities for Environmental Awareness Week.

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