By Teddy Crowther and Ashleigh Stepnowski
Amidst a year with an ongoing global pandemic, events relating to climate change have grown at an alarming rate. From raging wildfires in California to the current winter storm power crisis in Texas, the environment is now at the forefront of the world’s issues. Kingswood Oxford has committed to tackling many of these problems with various initiatives around campus, but to make a real impact, much more work needs to be done.
KO’s focus on environmental issues is not a new subject, as over the past decade, there have been many projects focusing on such ideas. In 2008, the school created the Chase Tallwood Science Math Technology Center, putting a focus on sustainability during construction. Over the past three years, KO has also expanded its garden, with a group of dedicated students and teachers putting it to use every spring and summer.
The keystone in KO’s efforts over the past couple of years has been the Green Team, a club founded by students passionate about the environment and led by faculty advisor and science teacher Lisa Bailey. “Students came to me and asked if I would help out with the Green Team, and it was an interest of mine to be environmentally conscious and try to help them,” she said.
The Green Team has been a mainstay on an ever-rotating basis of clubs and extracurriculars here at KO. Over the years, the team has attended conferences for green schools, held a school-wide event for Earth Day, and even created a community garden.
This garden, started by former student Rose Estellyn along with the Green Team, was created with the goal to create a more sustainable campus, as well as to harvest food for students and community members to enjoy. “In the first original goal, I think Rose just wanted us to be able to be a bit more sustainable,” Ms. Bailey said, “and to try to grow some of our own food to use in the dining hall or to donate.”
The Green Team has also attempted to generate interest across the KO community by organizing an Earth Day event in April 2019. The event, which saw students pick up trash around campus and show off their fashion outfits made entirely from recycled material, better known as the “Trash-ion show,” was canceled due to the COVID-19 shutdown that occurred in 2020.
This year, the freshman class will attempt to bring this tradition back to campus, with this project accompanying a series of other initiatives to change the freshmen curriculum. Major changes have included modifying the Earth and Environmental Science curriculum and introducing a new course, called “Global Cities,” as the history offering for the grade. “We decided that we wanted to offer freshmen something that was a little more relevant with what’s going on in the world today,” history Department Chair David Baker said, “both, I think, to excite kids about history but also to give them tools and resources that they actively need now as global citizens.”
In this course, freshmen have spent the year looking at various cities around the world and identifying many issues present in them. One of these issues that has been discussed is climate change. After undergoing a unit where students learn about these pressing issues, they will return to the topic at the end of the year to look at how Hartford can improve as a global city. “The plan is to take all that we’ve learned from the whole year, and apply it to Hartford,” Mr. Baker said. “Hartford as a city, and how we can use the information we’ve gained and learned to potentially make a positive impact or change.”
On the science side, students have delved deeply into the actual facts behind these issues. Looking through the lens of normal science topics such as biology or chemistry, students learn about how the Earth operates in regards to its environments and how certain phenomena have changed the world’s climate. They also wanted to instill the belief that students could go forth and make a difference with this problem in their daily lives. “Individuals, a lot of times, feel like they don’t have any ability to change things when they actually do,” science teacher Tim Allerton said. “It’s getting them to understand what it means to be sustainable and how you can live sustainably.”
The science department has also had students take a hands-on approach to this learning by contributing to the KO garden, collaborating with the history department for a large-scale project in April, and allowing them to plan the Earth Day event in April. “The world is changing, and the more that we can get students to recognize that, then it doesn’t become so daunting when they become older, because they’ve been exposed to it,” Mr. Allerton said.
The history department also created the Global Issues class, a new offering available to students in forms four, five, and six. This class is taught by history teacher Katie McCarthy and includes a unit on climate change. The class focuses on global issues and why they need global solutions. The climate unit in the class focuses mainly on climate activism and looks at the issue from a local perspective and an international perspective as well. While the class looks at climate change from a scientific perspective, that is not the only one. “One of the major themes of this unit is why environmental climate change issues are actually an economic issue, a human rights issue, and a diplomatic issue,” Ms.McCarthy said.
Students have strong background knowledge in climate issues, noted Ms. McCarthy. “I was struck from the beginning by how knowledgeable students were,” she said.
As the class is so new, it currently does not work interdisciplinarily with any other classes or clubs. However, the hope for the class is to partner with both the Green Team and the Activism Club, according to Ms. McCarthy.
While the newness of the Global Issues class has hindered interdisciplinary work within the class, the COVID-19 pandemic has hindered many climate and environmental initiatives.
One of the primary goals of the Green Team, in conjunction with the school, has been to decrease plastic use across campus. “Trying to reduce plastic,” Ms. Bailey said, “has been a big challenge, especially with the pandemic.” While the school has been trying for years to become more environmentally friendly and to reduce plastic usage on campus, the pandemic has complicated these efforts.
As a COVID-19 precaution, the cafeteria has switched to plastic utensils and individually wrapping these utensils and food items with plastic wrap. This has made reducing plastic an especially difficult challenge this year. Ms. Bailey notes that the cafeteria staff, led by Brian Woerlen, are typically very conscious about waste in the cafeteria, but that with the pandemic, it has become an especially difficult challenge this year.
Leader of the Green Team, senior Emma Henry, notes that the cafeteria has made steps in the past to reduce waste and has continued to try to reduce waste this year with new requirements of the pandemic. “Mr. Woerlen is very open-minded to using sustainable cutlery and reusing dishes, but this year he has not been able to do so,” Emma said. “And he did try to get compostable cutlery I believe, but it was too expensive and KO wasn’t able to make it happen.”
One of the continual programs the school is working on is their work on composting. In conjunction with the Green Team, Earth and Environmental Science classes have been working on composting projects. Emma notes that CO2 emissions are one of the most pressing issues, and reducing those is a main goal of the Green Team.
“The biggest thing the school can do to be more environmentally friendly is to reduce our carbon emissions by monitoring what kind of food we’re eating, where it is coming from, and how much we waste,” she said. Related to that, another one of the main goals of the Green Team is strengthening the composting ability of the school. KO is currently working in collaboration with a composting company called Blue Earth Compost to help them in this process
The Green Team has worked in the past not only composting but also growing food for the cafeteria. This project has continued, with the freshman science classes taking over the garden.
Not only have environmental issues been incorporated into Upper School classes, but they are also a focus in Middle School classes as well. Starting this year, the Form 1 science, English, and history teachers have come together to create a unit called the Power of Water.
The Power of Water unit takes place in the first semester for Form 1 students and connects the curricula of the three classes under one overarching theme: The power of water. The unit aims to answer the question: “What is the power of water?”
The science aspect of the class starts by focusing on the shaping power of water. According to Form 1 science teacher Josh Garrison, the class looks more at the Earth science aspect of water and how it shapes and carves its surroundings. The class then transitions into the ecological aspect of water, such as the effects of dams and fisheries on the surrounding ecosystems.
The English aspect of the class, taught by English teacher Beth Repp, focuses on the metaphorical, spiritual, and cultural nature of the power of water, while the history aspect of the class, taught by history teacher Peter Burdge, focuses on the history of the Connecticut River and how the environment of the Connecticut River has affected and shaped the lives of people who have lived around it.
As it has with every aspect of life, COVID-19 has taken its toll on the class. The initial plan for the class was to use the Connecticut River as a sort of classroom, to immerse the students and create tighter connections between the classes. The limiting effect of COVID-19 on the program was significant.
“If the idea of the Power of Water unit was like a Thanksgiving dinner, gorgeous and elaborate, what we actually did was create a ham sandwich because we couldn’t go anywhere,” Ms. Repp said. She continued, explaining that the class was still a success, but was on a smaller scale due to many restrictions.
Ideally, in a post-COVID world, the class will focus much more on the environment surrounding KO. “We would have spent a lot more time actually on and around the Connecticut River,” Ms. Repp said. Mr. Burdge remarked that in addition to many field trips, the plan before the pandemic had also been to bring in speakers to further the impact of this unit on students, but due to restrictions, it was not possible.
Just as COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of the KO community, the environment and environmental issues impact the entire community as well. Nearly every student at some point in their KO career will encounter or be a part of an environment-based class or unit, or participate in an environmentally based activity. Many members of the community have ideas to make KO more environmentally friendly going forward. “I’d love to see solar power looked at,” Ms. Bailey said. “The fieldhouse roof is a perfect place for that.”
Students also have ideas to make KO more green. “One of my students last year had looked into writing a grant to get an anaerobic digester to take care of not only our food waste but the schools in the West Hartford area,” Ms. Bailey said. She added that the methane produced by the anaerobic digester could be used to power parts of the school, lowering its carbon footprint.
Lowering the school’s carbon footprint is not only the main goal of Ms. Bailey but also of students like Emma Henry, who remarked that the biggest impact KO can have is reducing its carbon footprint.
Going forward, in addition to ideas to make KO more green, the school will continue to have environmental classes, and these classes may continue to expand to become more interdisciplinary.
The school has placed and is continuing to place increasing emphasis on environmental issues through its actions and through its classes. This increased environmental awareness will hopefully bring education, change, and more initiatives to the future of the school.