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Pupils in Two States Find They 'Can Make a Change'

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Evoking an environmental activism reminiscent of the 1960's, elementary-school pupils in New Jersey and Utah have launched far-reaching initiatives that attack pollution problems by applying basic principles of American government.

Students at the Tenakill School in Closter, N.J., turned a lesson on the Bill of Rights and its implications for freedom of expression into a lobbying organization called "Kids Against Pollution." The group has since grown into a national network that links more than 50 schools in 26 states.

"I told them that you can certainly write and be critical of something and you can make a change," said Nick Byrne, a 5th-grade teacher who provided the impetus for the project in the fall of 1987.

"That particular weekend," Mr. Byrne recalled, "there had been a lot of pollution in our area floating up on the beaches."

Adopting the slogan "Not just for us, but for future generations," kap has progressed from letter-writing campaigns aimed at Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York to efforts to convince local school boards not to buy Styrofoam products.

Their efforts have been aided by publicity from New York City television stations and national children's magazines. And the United Nations has invited members of the network to address a International Youth Environmental Forum scheduled for early this week.

Most recently, kap drafted an "environmental bill of rights" to be pre4sented to political leaders during the organization's first Environmental Rights Day this weekend. According to Mr. Byrne, the students hope to propose parts of the document as amendments to state and federal constitutions.

Just about the time kap was being formed in New Jersey, academically gifted students at Salt Lake City's Jackson Elementary School became interested in cleaning up a so-called "barrel yard" of possibly hazardous wastes in an area near the school where many of them played.

'Grassroots' Effort

The Utah youngsters were studying the ways in which groundwater may become contaminated. After researching the site--and winning the support of Mayor Palmer DePaulis, a former teacher--they began putting gentle pressure on the property's owner, the local health department, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to clean it up.

The students managed to raise more than $2,000 to help pay for the cleanup, only to discover that state law prevented the government from accepting the money.

Their solution was to draft legislation creating a state fund for such contributions. They persuaded lawmakers to sponsor such a measure, then lobbied and passed out printed leaflets in support of the bill. It was passed unanimously last year.

Their efforts also are credited with spurring the creation by the legislature last year of a $3-million state "superfund" to speed toxic-waste reduction.

"It grew naturally out of a grassroots situation," Barbara A. Lewis, the students' teacher, said of the Utah superfund. She chronicled the progress toward its passage in the March/April issue of Sierra magazine, a publication of the Sierra Club.

"I don't think these children are unique," Ms. Lewis insisted. "I think children could do this anywhere."

'Psyche Is Changing'

Environmental-education experts were unable to say last week whether such projects represent a new wave of student activism in the area nationally. But some did say the projects symbolized the rejuvenated interest among young people in solving environmental problems.

"We know there are lots of individual students and teachers who call or write" for information about how to become involved in environmental causes, said S. Douglas Miller, vice president for education at the National Wildlife Federation.

He said that during a recent trip to Alaska to inspect the environmental damage caused by the wreck of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez, he was struck by the number of educators who approached him about forming coaliel10ltions to inform the public about environmental problems.

Others said such concern may mirror a growing public perception that people have a personal stake in protecting the environment.

"The whole psyche about environmental problems is changing," said Steven C. Kussmann, president-elect of the Alliance for Environmental Education Inc., a national umbrella organization. "We've got some pretty serious issues in front of us, and without education we're not going to solve them. It's as simple as that."

'Making Life Happen'

Both Ms. Lewis and Mr. Byrne said the success of their efforts lay not in convincing students to be2p4come "environmentalists," but in empowering them to use the political system to achieve their goals.

"The kids made up all the ways to approach other kids themselves," noted Mr. Byrne of the nationwide network launched in New Jersey.

Ms. Lewis added that the interdisciplinary approach she took with her Utah students could be successfully adopted at almost any school. "It goes straight across the curriculum, combining science, social studies, language arts, and math," she said.

Almost as a important as the project's academic lessons for her inner-city students, Ms. Lewis added, was the message it gave them about being "in charge of their own life."

To have been successful in the political arena, she said, told them ''that they can make life happen."

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