Eco-Education: This Upstate charter school wants to change how students think about the environment

GREEN Charter School. Photo by Will Crooks/Greenville Journal.

As the global population grows, the environment faces increasing strain from a number of threats — including climate change, pollution, deforestation, and more. But a local charter school is on a mission to preserve and protect the natural world by helping students understand and address these issues.

Opened in 2013, GREEN (Greenville Renewable Energy Education) Charter School aims to “instill in students the desire to continually expand their intellects and use the content knowledge and skills they have acquired to participate in and responsibly shape the quality and direction of a complex world with ever increasing energy and sustainability demands.”

The K-12 school  located along Pelham Road and Century Drive  uses a curriculum written by the National Energy Education Development Project, whose sponsors and partners include major petroleum and utility companies like BP America, Citgo, Dominion Energy, and Duke Energy.

Jodi Isaacs, chief of staff at GREEN, said the curriculum includes core subjects such as math and English but puts an emphasis on environmental science. 

Elementary students, for instance, learn about the relationship between trash and energy by constructing and presenting exhibits on waste management processes, such as reducing, recycling, landfilling, and incineration. They also learn about solar energy and convection by designing and building “solar ovens” in order to cook s’mores.

Meanwhile, middle and high school students learn about climate change through lessons on the greenhouse effect and participate in hands-on activities that introduce concepts related to fossil fuels, such as the exploration and production of petroleum and natural gas.

The curriculum used by GREEN Charter School is designed to weave core subjects such as math and English into lessons about renewable energy and other topics related to environmental science. Photo by Will Crooks/Greenville Journal.

Isaacs said the school’s teachers equip students with facts about renewable and nonrenewable energy sources in order to help them “come up with their own decisions and choices.”

“Education and renewable energy constitute two major challenges for South Carolina in the 21st century. With its unique educational focus, GREEN Charter Schools tackles two intertwined challenges of our community,” she added. “While progress has been made to some extent, our changing economy requires much more from public education.”

In their book, “The Failure of Environmental Education,” California-based conservationist Charles Saylan and UCLA professor Daniel Blumstein note that environmental education is often put on the back burner by administrators within the public school system due to its political roots.

Research, however, indicates that “green schools” provide health benefits for students, save money for taxpayers through increased teacher retention, and demonstrate better academic performance, according to the U.S. Green Building Council. A 2017 study conducted by SRI Education and George Washington University, for instance, found that students who attend inclusive STEM high schools (both public and charter) undertake more advanced STEM coursework, have higher test scores in science, and express more interest in STEM careers.

Annual report card data from the the S.C. Department of Education shows that GREEN students regularly exceed standardized testing averages in not only science but also social studies, English, and math. Last year, for instance, about 52 percent of the school’s middle school students exceeded expectations on the South Carolina Palmetto Assessment of State Standards (SC PASS) science test, as compared with only 24 percent of students statewide. 



Isaacs said the school’s academic success over the years can be attributed to a number of factors, including individualized instruction.

“Teachers examine data collected on each student in order to meet them where they are academically. Besides teaching the state standards, teachers meet each student at their instructional level in order to meet their academic needs,” she said. “Students that may be struggling with a particular concept are pulled during the school day for small group instruction. These instructional groups start in September and growth is monitored.”

GREEN students can also participate in a wide range of environmentally focused field trips and experiential learning activities, such as Trout in the Classroom, according to Isaacs.

The science-based program, which is sponsored by Trout Unlimited and licensed through the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, teaches students about the importance of cold water conservation through hands-on learning. 

Participating students raise trout from eggs to fingerlings and eventually release them back into a stream at Table Rock State Park in Pickens County. Throughout the process of raising the trout, students conduct water chemistry tests, analyze weekly growth trends, and engage in stream habitat study.

“These hands-on agricultural activities allow children to explore the symbiotic relationship of animals, plants, and the environment,” Isaacs said, adding that students can also garden or raise animals, such as chickens and rabbits. “GREEN Charter School prepares students for life in the 21st century by challenging them to develop a high standard of personal expectations beyond proficiency toward mastery in areas such as problem-solving, teamwork, and communication.”

Students at GREEN Charter School can participate in a wide range of environmentally focused field trips and experiential learning activities, such as raising chickens. Photo by Will Crooks/Greenville Journal.

Because it is part of the South Carolina Public Charter School District, GREEN can receive public funding and accept students who live outside of Greenville County, according to Isaacs. The school enrolled about 880 students during the 2018-19 academic year.  

“Our enrollment continues to increase with hundreds of applications on our waitlist,” Isaacs said. “This data shows that parents are looking for more than just high academic standards.”

GREEN became the first charter school in South Carolina to replicate its model when it opened a $6 million campus in Irmo last year. It also recently received approval from the state to open locations in the Spartanburg and Charleston areas.

The schools are expected to open sometime within the next two years and serve up to 300 students in kindergarten through sixth grade, eventually expanding to serve grades K-12. Applications for a lottery-based selection process will be available in the spring of 2019.

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