Every September, students, teachers, and staff members gather in Schauff Circle to kick off the beginning of another school year, full of hope and humor, happy to see each other and to get started.
Each year, I present an aspirational goal for all of us. Those have included, “be kinder than necessary,” and “be fearless,” among others. This year, I made a more specific call to action; to highlight our newly-adopted school value I challenged our community to stand up for nature.
We are fortunate to come every day to this beautiful 67-acre campus, the former Honey Hollow Farm and for many centuries home of Chinook peoples. Everyone who knows our campus appreciates the fir grove, the apple orchard, and the forest paths. From gardening to science study students engage with our natural surroundings for educational and aesthetic benefits. This has been true for generations; alumni often cite their experience at Catlin Gabel as the place where they first developed an appreciation for nature, an understanding of its fragility, and a belief that we all have a role to play in sustaining our environment.
As we contemplate the state of our planet today, however, we can’t help but feel a sense of urgency more pressing than previous generations experienced. Just last month, the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned us, once again, that “climate change is the defining issue of our time, and we are at a defining moment.” Some may argue that recent rising temperatures are not proof of long-term change, and it is true that we are making significant progress in developing renewable energy sources. But the fact remains, in an increasingly urbanized world, children are in danger of losing a personal connection with nature, and with it a sense of responsibility for the environment we must protect.
We must ask ourselves, as a community, are we doing enough?
To answer that question, it is important to first consider what we’ve done thus far. For our environmental efforts, especially in operations, Catlin Gabel was named a Green Ribbon School by the U.S. Dept. of Education in 2012. Last year, our Environmental Advisory Council (EAC), which includes students, teachers, staff, and parents, drafted an ambitious and comprehensive action plan, and the board of trustees was moved to endorse an institutional statement on sustainability.
Concurrently, the administrative team endorsed environmental sustainability as a core value, adding it to the list of school values that inform curriculum, resource allocation, and decision-making. In formalizing our commitment to environmental sustainability, we recognized the direct connection to other Catlin Gabel values, such as critical and creative thinking, and teaching for democracy.
And now we are putting these values into action. Every day teachers and older students participate in our schoolwide recycling program, and we are processing a wider variety of materials. We will devote a professional learning day to sustainability in the weeks ahead. Composting, transportation, and energy initiatives will be considered. Our new master plan reflects a deep commitment to stewardship and ecology on our campus. We are talking about ways to deepen our commitment in the curriculum, with a more intentional focus on climate and nature literacy up through the grades. All students need to understand the science, the economics, and the social dynamics of climate change and sustaining the environment.
Our strategic plan calls on us to deepen our commitment to experiential learning. We challenge our students to analyze, understand, and solve meaningful and relevant problems in the world. Environmental sustainability provides fertile ground for learning and applying science, math, economics, engineering, systems thinking, and research and communication skills. Endless opportunities exist in the Portland, the Northwest, and around the world to engage with a wide range of professions, cultures, and media around issues of sustainability. Colleges and employers value students who can bring creative and empathetic ideas to this global issue.
I challenge every student and adult to “stand up for nature,” because I believe a sustainable human and global future depends on educating our young people to take responsible action for the environment.