(Sara Brown for Boston.com)
When history teacher Cate Arnold showed her class the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” about four years ago, she inadvertently started a youth movement.
Arnold's eighth-graders at Boston Latin School wanted to take action. This led to a club, the Boston Latin School Youth Climate Action Network, or Youth CAN, which has America’s oldest school at the forefront of a new wave of youth activism. The accolades have come pouring in for Arnold and her students, including a “Green Flag” designation from the International Eco-Schools program, an honor bestowed on the students Thursday during ceremonies at the school.
Students, community members, and even a delegation from France celebrated the school's achievement with an in-school assembly, and afterward, a celebration in the Boston Latin library.
Boston Latin is the first public school in the country to achieve the prestigious “Green Flag” status, In the US, international program for students in grades K-12 is hosted by the National Wildlife Fund.
To earn the honor--which must be renewed every two years--the school completed a rigorous seven-step program, including action plans, environmental audits, and involvement from the school and wider community.
In the Boston Latin group's four years, they can boast of everything from a small lettuce crop to an annual climate change youth summit. They have been featured on the Today Show, and Youth CAN member Rebecca Park presented former vice-president Al Gore--whose documentary started the movement--with information about the group.
Park and Eshe Sherley, both Boston Latin juniors that live in Jamaica Plain, are well-versed in the impressive facts and figures their organization can boast: about 20 different Youth CAN groups have sprouted up in the state, replicating what Boston Latin is doing, part of a youth movement that includes 11 million children in 51 countries.
The group officially meets twice a week, Park said, but it’s “devolved into almost every day, because of the scope and scale of what we do.”
The students recalled their projects from this year: with a focus on food and sustainability, the students have lobbied to become part of the Farm to School program, hosted a sustainable food fair, won a grant for a salad bar, participated in the Northeast Regional Food and Justice Summit, and planted a garden that has already yielded lettuce and greens.
Anthony Betances, a Youth CAN member junior from Roslindale, said part of Thursday’s celebration would include planting two dwarf apple trees, so in three or four years, the apples will “possibly be able to be used in school lunches.”
“When you see where it grows, and it doesn’t come from miles and miles away…it’s a good thing,” Betances said.
The students are also working towards a bigger goal: a $5 million "Green Roof," a sustainable roofscape and community learning center with solar panels, wind turbines, and gathering areas. The project would produce food for the cafeteria, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and be a model for other schools. Boston's Studio G Architects worked with the students pro bono on the initial planning and design.
Already, Sherley said, there are 11,000 vegetation trays on one of the school’s terraces
Over the past year, the students raised $7,400 from the sale of compact fluorescent lightbulbs, the students said, and Arnold won a $25,000 award for the project from The Green Awards.
Next year, Sherley added, the students hope to make a cookbook with different recipes from the Boston Latin community.
In the library, a table bedecked with awards was also evidence of the group's achievements; they include an Environmental Protection Agency Merit award and a President's Environmental Youth Award, with Boston Latin one of 10 schools nationwide to receive the honor.
Youth CAN has also partnered with other groups around the city, including XX and X.
“Today is very much about that,” Sherley said. The students gave out participation awards to community members that they work with, from Jim Hunt, the city's chief of environmental services (and a Boston Latin alum) to the Boston Latin School Association and Casella Recycling.
Also on hand Thursday, and receiving an award: a delegation from Enghien, France, including students, teachers, and public officials. The delegation hopes to replicate the Youth CAN program in Paris-area schools.
Some award recipients, in turn, praised the group. “Youth CAN is the best client we've ever had," said Studio G's Gail Sullivan.
“I just want you to all know…how excited we are that are able to honor you,” Elizabeth Soper, associate director of Eco-Schools USA, said before she unfurled the large green flag, adding that it isn’t easy to attain the honor. Only 12,000 schools world-wide have received Green Flag status.
“I can think of no greater example of our mission than Youth CAN,” said Boston Latin Headmaster Lynne Mooney-Teta.
What started as “a small after-school club,” she said, “has turned into a movement.”
“They’ve worked like crazy, these kids,” said Arnold, recalling the teacher training sessions, where 34 teachers received instruction about how to work sustainability practices into their curriculums.
Arnold, who is in her 11th year of teaching at Boston Latin, said her students wanted to start a club after watching “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore’s documentary about climate change.
Arnold said she was dubious, never having led a club before. “You can ask,” she recalled saying.
Pretty soon, “they got a bigger room” for the first club meeting, with 90 kids and four parents showing up. Four months later, the group hosted their first Youth CAN summit
Last month, at the group’s 5th global climate change summit at MIT, more than 300 students from 70 schools attended a day of workshops, exhibits, and demonstrations. Next year, the group said, they plan to invite Michelle Obama.
The students are also busy preparing the next generation of Youth CAN. The students started a partnership with John D. Philbrick Elementary School in Roslindale, with the older students mentoring their younger counterparts over 10 visits this year.
The students joined in a “Think Outside the Bottle” campaign, Arnold said, promoting drinking tap water over bottled water, and performing energy audits at their school.
The younger students sat in the front row for the Green Flag presentation Thursday, excitedly accepting certificates of thanks for their participation in the program.
After the ceremony, students and guests adjourned to the lawn, where a band, Melodeego, performed with bicycle-powered generators, students ate cake, and, pretty soon, a group of students started digging holes for their new apple trees.
As the students cut into a celebratory cake, adorned with a frosting globe, a member of the French delegation spoke up.
“Let me tell you something. Changing the world is not a piece of cake," said Jean-Claude Durousseaud, the director of JCDI Consulting in Paris. "But you are an inspiration for all of us.”
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