Seattle's Child

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The Green Police in Seattle Public Schools

“Green Teams” empower kids to help the environment


The idea of Seattle schoolkids foregoing recess and clamoring to sign up for “Green Teams” that help fellow students sort their lunch trash for composting is so wholesomely Northwest it could almost be a Portlandia sketch.

But that wouldn’t give proper credit to a program that’s getting kids excited about environmental issues and teaching them important lessons about consumption and waste.  

At Stevens Elementary School on Capitol Hill, physical education teacher Eric Peters leads the Green Team, where 84 of the school’s 380 students are members. 

Participating students volunteer during lunch shifts to help their peers figure out whether an item is garbage, compostable or can be recycled. They also give presentations to other students about composting and create signs supporting the initiative. 

“The kids like knowing that they’re doing something that helps the school and helps the environment,” says Peters, who has been on the project for about two years. “They enjoy learning about where the waste goes and why this is important, and they love taking on leadership roles.”  

Peters, with the support of colleagues and parent volunteers, also holds educational meetings where they talk in-depth with students about why composting matters and where the material goes. This year, students are looking forward to a field trip to Recology CleanScapes, which is one of the biggest recycling contractors for the city.

Seattle requires that residents and businesses separate out their compostable waste — a rule that applies to schools as well. 

An organization called Washington Green Schools supports the Green Teams, which can be found at almost 90 percent of the 86 elementary, middle and high schools in the Seattle Public School district. The nonprofit offers training, lesson plans and other resources to foster a variety of environmental programs at schools statewide. 

At northeast Seattle’s John Rogers Elementary School, about half of the students have signed up for the Green Team, which launched this school year. 

“We were a little shocked during recruitment that [the students] weren’t at all upset about the idea of missing recess in order to participate,” says Kelsey Isaacson, an instructional assistant at Rogers. 

In addition to their lunchroom duties, members participate in creative projects organized by parent volunteers. Recently, they crafted a mural of an otter, the school’s mascot, from recycled goods. “It turned out beautifully,” Isaacson says. 

At Concord International Elementary School near the Duwamish River in South Seattle, teachers have taken the program in a different direction, studying how waste is handled globally. Kate Ayers, a technology teacher at Concord, lets her students each pick a country and research how trash is handled there. Students identify parallels between the waste issues faced elsewhere and in their own community, then come up with ideas to take steps locally. 

“When we do a project like that, one of the important things is to take action,” Ayers says. 

Leigh Michael, outreach coordinator for Washington Green Schools, emphasizes that a big part of the organization’s goal is to equip and empower students to become lifelong leaders who will work to improve our environment. The Green Team provides them with the skills and knowledge to make a difference in the world’s future long after they’ve moved on from the elementary school lunchroom, she says. 

The message seems to resonate. 

“I want the chance to be a part of something that is bigger than just me,” says Hazel, a Green Team member at Wallingford’s Hamilton International Middle School. “I want to leave a lasting impact on the whole world. My classmates and I need to be a part of a movement that can change the future. Washington Green Schools helps us be a part of giant change for our planet.”

About the Author

Caitlin Flynn