By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers
WYANDOTTE – Going green has earned emerald status for Lincoln Center, a school for cognitively impaired and autistic students from 17 Downriver districts, for its accomplishments throught the Michigan Green Schools initiative.
The initiative, a non-profit agency, helps schools find practical ways to protect the environment – air, water, land and animals – while encouraging good ecological practices.
The center, at 891 Goddard, the site of the former Taft Elementary School, earned emerald status in 2015 by completing 15 activities, with at least two from each of four categories: reduce, reuse and recycle; energy usage; environmental protection; and miscellaneous. Ten activities qualify a school for green status, and 20 activities earn evergreen status.
Speech therapist Nate Conn said Lincoln Center began its green initiative in the fall of 2014 after discovering the program, begun in 2004 by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Conn said they wanted to find something for students to do that got them outside of the classroom. Some students can periodically go to local cycling centers, while others can participate on site.
“We wanted something that could bring full participation, and recycling can do that,” Conn said. “It’s a life skill, it’s an independence skill, you build teamwork, and it is staff, students and para-pros all coming together to make it happen.”
Conn said he and a staff team, who meet monthly to discuss current and future projects, includes special education teachers Jaime Lopez and Shawn Patterson, physical therapist Christopher Laura, speech therapist Laura Akcasu, social worker Marci Heulitt, building engineer Jim Watson and program administrator Lauren Feigel.
Conn said their next project is upcycling plastic milk jugs into bird feeders that students can decorate.
Upcycling is using waste material to produce something better than the original.
“Instead of throwing things away, we are recycling them and turning them into something new,” Lopez said. “We are really into that right now for art purposes. The teachers can provide a little lesson after.”
Conn said while Lincoln Center’s students have a wide range of abilities, recycling and upcycling is something they can all do.
The school’s green initiative started with classroom waste stream collection for recycling, which is later sorted in a central recycling area of the school, and every Friday a group of students who have behaved well during the week help take cardboard, plastic and tin cans to the Wyandotte Recycling Center at 1170 Grove St.
Covert Shredding, 28745 Wick Road in Romulus, picks up and recycles office paper, which the Wyandotte Recycle Center does not accept.
Students return the soda pop cans and bottles staff use in the building, with the refunds used to purchase recycling collection bins and to fund other green projects.
Conn said the school district has an energy efficiency policy covering things like the types of light bulbs that may be used and motion activated lighting.
He said even with disabilities, the students have adopted recycling as an automatic behavior, putting plastic water bottles and classroom paper into the recycling bins.
“It’s just amazing,” Lopez said. “They are into it. Right now my students are just (recycling) in the classroom. They are talking a lot about upcycling. They haven’t experienced trips (to the recycling center), they are just doing it at the basic level. They will get more as they move on throughout our program.”
Conn said last year on Earth Day the classrooms had an environmental awareness classroom door decorating contest.
“We had full participation, and just some awesome art,” Conn said. “Student driven, with staff help.”
Conn said with recycling, students feel like they are an active part of the school community.
“Being out of the rooms and serving a purpose, participating in the betterment of the school environment, and just being a part of that team I think is what the kids enjoy the most,” Conn said.
He said he sees positive daily changes in his students.
“You see the students wanting to participate, and for us, that is a lot of progress,” Conn said.
Feigel said parents are proud of their children’s participation and progress.
“They are out in the community, so they are learning more independence skills,” Feigel said. “Their ultimate goal is after age 26 they transition into more adult living, and more independence. So they get out in the community more, and they are learning skills.”
Lopez said their next big project is with their new greenhouse, assembled by Watson and funded through a grant Heulitt applied for and received from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. They hope to add raised planting beds in it next.
Feigel said they plan to use the greenhouse to let students grow vegetables to sell to staff members, and maybe eventually at the Wyandotte Farmer’s Market.
Cafeteria food waste will be composted, Conn said, as will coffee grounds from a student-run micro-enterprise coffee cart serving staff.
“We are starting out small, but as we build success, we’ll slowly but surely expand the greenhouse,” Conn said.
He said they take students down the street to Beaver Park, at Goddard and 11th, bordering Ecorse Creek, which is home to waterfowl, turtles and small mammals.
“We take kids there every spring and fall not only to look at the amazing nature there, but we also pick up trash,” Conn said. “It’s a neat way to show the impact of nature in our suburban neighborhood.”
Feigel is proud of her staff’s contributions to the school’s environmentally friendly culture, and of her students’ enthusiastic adoption of the practices.
“It makes me excited to see (students) so engaged,” Feigel said. “I am really proud of how hard they have worked, and the staff that made it happen.”
Student Nathan Markel, 18, of Woodhaven said he recycles to help the earth.
“If we don’t recycle, the Earth will get sick,” Markel said. “That’s why we recycle papers, plastic, cardboard and bottles.”
Lopez said the green initiative is a good way to connect skills learned in the classroom to real life experience.
Conn is encouraged by the progress he sees students making every single day with the green school initiative.
“With our students it sometimes takes months, years to see any kind of progress,” Conn said. “But with this, you see it happening every single day. Just watching the action take place before your eyes is the most exciting part.”