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Graham Goes Green at Lunch

At Graham Elementary, even knowing what to do with leftover milk is part of the students' Green Team recycling and composting efforts.

At , every day is Earth Day.

After each lunch period, six students oversee the school’s food composting program, ensuring that students place the right items in the right bins.

Paper trays get stacked. Food scraps and paper go into metal compost bins, plastic into another set of bins. Leftover milk is poured into a bucket.

Students sign up to lead the daily task.

It all began with the creation of the Graham Elementary Green Team—a group of sixth graders who focus on delivering environmental tips that other students can take from school into their homes. They meet every Wednesday after school.

Kindergarten teacher Arlene Paxton has headed the venture into composting food for the past three years. She's watched the Green Team evolve from a group of sixth graders devoted to beautifying the school and teaching students about the three R—reduce, reuse and recycle—to a school-wide, detailed food composting program with a focus on the four Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle and rebuy.

“A lot of kids are really happy," Paxton said. “Every time I see them, somebody always tells me ‘I’m green… I want to be on the green team.’ It’s very nice. They’re very excited about that.”

A first grader walking to Paxton's classroom did just that. The youngster, part of the after-school program that handles the school's paper recycling efforts, asked enthusiastically when he could help the Green Team during lunch.

"Next year," Paxton told him, and the boy smiled and skipped off.

Six students from grades 2 and 3 make up the food composting teams during one lunch period, while six kids from grades 5 and 6 handle another. Students rotate every week.

During Monday’s lunch period, students were eager to get started with the their duties.

One third grader said he enjoys being a part of the Green Team because he gets to help the Earth. He explained how the food gets broken down into certified organic compost for farmers to grow food.

Principal Peter Parenti said that kind of learning is one big reason the Green Team is valuable to Graham Elementary.

“What’s really most important to me is to provide students with opportunities in leadership and involvement,” Parenti said. “I keep my focus on how students are engaged during their free time in school so they have opportunities to learn in ways that don’t feel like they’re learning or aren’t in your traditional ways.”

With the Green Team initiatives, Graham is “teaching a lot science during our recess periods and the kids are just absorbing it like sponges,” Parenti said.

A successful program like the one at Graham Elementary takes more than interest, said Rebecca Parnes, recycling program coordinator for Waste Management of Alameda County.

“There needs to be interest and support. They need to have a teacher involved, students involved … the principal needs to be supportive, the custodian,” Parnes said. “It’s really a team effort.”

Staff and students at Graham Elementary have put in lots of time to make the program a successful one.

“They work hard. What it was, and what it’s become, is a huge leap. They are not incremental steps,” Parenti said.

The principal said the program is a partnership with Waste Management and supports the goal of reducing landfill.

“It teaches that schools and businesses can meet both of their goals, Parenti said. "Waste Management doesn’t get 16 bags of garbage from Graham Elementary any more. Now it is six.” 

Food composting programs are fairly new, said Waste Management's Parnes, but neighboring has begun one too.

Paxton hopes students will remember what they’ve learned when they move on to junior high.

“We remind them that they are trendsetters," he said. "I hope when they leave, they will carry this with them. I want them to know they can make a difference.”

Mona Taplin April 22, 2011 at 05:02 PM
How great to read such a good report about Newarks kids and the leadership that inspires them! Thank you for this article. A little food for thought,- We need to remember that the kids in gangs we complain about now were once just as enthusiastic as these youngsters about helping on all sorts of worthwhile projects. We should be doing a LOT more towards helping them stay on a straight path so they can become productive citizens.
Rick Bensco April 22, 2011 at 07:42 PM
Mona, once again we agree! Yahoo! I commented about the Green Team a while ago and just think it is the best. My Word in the Argus was about a need to belong and how the Green Team fills that need. The Band the board is thinking about ending is along the same lines. I think we agree we should find a way to keep the band as well. Arlene Paxton is a gem for sure. Three cheers for The Green Team!!!

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