Looking through our National Schools of Character over the last few years, I was in search of a story that would inspire teachers to plan meaningful projects for Earth Day on April 22. When I heard about the composting program at Chesterfield Elementary (Chesterfield, Missouri), it sounded like exactly what I was looking for, but when I began talking to Mitzy Cruzen, 5th grade teacher, I realized I’d stumbled upon so much more.

In 2009, when the principal asked the classes to take on a service learning project, Mitzy’s class decided they wanted to begin composting. They chose composting after deeming it a realistic goal that would have a significant impact. To learn more about composting, her class, in addition to reading about it, went on a field trip to a compost facility.

Even with this newfound knowledge of the process of composting, they were not ready to begin until they had buy-in from the entire school community, including students, parents and teachers. The fifth graders presented at a staff meeting, a PTO meeting and even created games to help the younger students learn about composting. Once everyone was on board and the program was in full swing, the fifth graders still wanted to do more.Composting

“Every year we add something new,” Mitzy said. She explained that a passion for the environment has become ingrained in school culture. Each year the fifth grade chooses a gift to give to the school and it always benefits the environment. One year they picked rain barrels. Another year they chose cement benches for the prairie, the school’s backyard.

The entire 5th grade is divided up into environmental action committees all of which work on projects the students are passionate about. They plan and organize events, make posters for their outdoor board, label the plants in their school’s garden and even submit grants to fund their projects. So far the students have written over $10,000 in grants. Since their school playground is also a city park, the students have a prime opportunity to share their work with the community. In addition to transforming their playground into an educational place for all to enjoy, they’ve found other creative ways to give back.Recycling Event

After learning about Milkweed plants, the students collected sorted and cleaned Milkweed seeds. Rather than keeping them all for themselves, they packaged them, created planting and descriptions details and gave them out at the Chesterfield City Hall Recycling Event.

Hearing about such amazing projects, you may begin to wonder, are students really leading these efforts? The answer is a resounding yes. Mitzy gave me an example of how one project got started.

One day a child noticed another child playing by an unappealing part of the playground, by a large oak tree. He commented that that didn’t look like a very nice place to play. “There’s your new research committee,” she told him and suddenly a new project had begun. The child recruited others to help and began planning how they would transform that area into an outdoor play space. Looking for ways that the younger students could learn from the new space, the committee went to the 1st grade classrooms to find sight words from the class’s word wall. They wrote the words on rocks they’d painted with bright colors. The stepping stones were marked with touch point numbers so the space could incorporate math, as well. They created an inviting place that children of all ages continue to enjoy.Word Garden

Advice for Getting Started

Do these projects seem overwhelming to you or impossible for your school? Mitzy’s advice is to take advantage of all your local resources and to start small.

Make sure you reach out to services in your community. Landscaping companies, conservation experts and the botanic gardens have all served as great resources.“Utilize everything that is out there, so that you don’t have to be the expert,” Mitzy said.

Remember, there is no need to rush into a big project all at once. Mitzy said, “Every year we’ve added something new and expanded on it.”