Autumn in America brings new backpacks, bikes, and, in this bold new century, a fresh crop of charter schools. This September is no exception—in New York City alone, approximately 20 new charters will join the city’s existing 78.
Noteworthy among them is an elementary school in Queens, District 30’s Growing Up Green Charter School. GUGCS advertises an “engaging green culture” where students write on recycled paper, sit in recycled furniture, wear organic uniforms, and eat organic lunches, grown and composted in the school’s own garden.
Picture it: Kindergartners standing on step stools made from used milk jugs to dim the lights before going out to tend the sugar snap peas. Parents, environmentalists, and endangered sea turtles will swoon.
Sound too good to be true? It may be. This eco-friendly Eden has the potential to do us all a serious disservice.
Consider the role of novelty charter schools. Instead of mass-producing the mediocre, these schools offer specialized educations. Brooklyn’s new Hebrew Language Academy Charter School will offer a dual-language education in English and Hebrew. Other charters aim for fluency in Mandarin, Greek, or Arabic. In the nation’s capital, the Washington Latin Public Charter School emphasizes the classics. In Meridian, Idaho, the Meridian Medical Arts Charter High School caters to students pursuing careers in health sciences.
Students at novelty charters gain skills that serve them well in life, college, and the job market. Perhaps this justifies separating subjects into these one-of-a-kind schools. After all, it could be impractical to incorporate intensive health-science studies or immersion Hebrew into an entire school district.
But this is where the problem with GUGCS comes in. Why? Because green culture should not be a novelty.
After all, shouldn’t every student “grow up green”? Shouldn’t all students use recycled materials and eat organic food? With the East Coast facing floods as the Atlantic rises, and as air quality, global food access, and the very future of humankind face environmental crises, do we really want a “green culture” to come across as a boutique school designation, rather than a globally relevant reform imperative?
This is not an indictment of the New York City charter, which is probably filled with savvy leaders who have already considered these concerns. It is more of a request.
To the Growing Up Green Charter School: Please make yourself a place to pot the seeds for transplantable policies. You will likely attract parents and students who would have advocated for environmental changes in their former public schools. To compensate, be sure to nourish any parents, administrators, and activists willing to spread your successes. You will be a true standout if you incite and, ideally, expedite outside school reform.
In other words, GUGCS, despite being a school that promotes self-sustainability, should strive to make itself obsolete. Not so that it should fold, but so that it should become largely indistinguishable from any other school—so that when we picture that child who stands on recycled milk jugs to turn down the lights and tend to the veggies, we could be thinking of any school in America.