Teachers and students push for climate change education in California

October 8, 2019

Noah Canton, a science teacher at Hillcrest Elementary in Oakland, joins other Oakland teachers to discuss climate change education.

As students around the globe demand action by their government leaders to protect the environment, school boards across California have taken steps to recognize the impact of climate change on the environment and their students.

Now, many students and teachers are saying it’s time to put ideas on how schools should address climate change into practice.

Climate change falls under the core ideas for middle and high school students in the Next Generation Science Standards, new standards adopted by the state in 2013. Environmental Principles and Concepts are also included in the California Science Framework, which provides guidance for teachers on how to implement the new science standards. These principles cover broad topics such as how humans depend on and influence natural systems and by law must be integrated into state-recommended textbooks and instructional materials.

Schools are encouraged to teach environmental literacy, which by definition includes climate change, according to state law. The Education Code does not mandate that schools teach it, however. But because climate change is in the state standards, and California’s state science test is aligned to those standards, climate change could appear on the statewide science assessment.

To emphasize the importance of these standards and the impact of climate change more broadly, many districts have passed resolutions and policies to commit to environmental education. Some have even included specific actions, such as reducing carbon emissions on campus.

More than 40 California districts and county offices of education have adopted climate change resolutions since 2017 as part of a national effort started by Schools for Climate Action, a California-based advocacy initiative led by science teacher Park Guthrie and his students at Salmon Creek Middle School in Sonoma County. Dozens of student organizations, teachers unions and parent and teacher associations in California have passed similar resolutions.

But not all students are learning about climate change in class yet. Some teachers say the topic is still unfamiliar territory and that there aren’t enough resources to incorporate it into their curriculum.

Oakland Unified is one of many districts around the state that is now ramping up efforts to change that.

“We are behind the times when it comes to climate change education,” said Noah Canton, a middle school science teacher at the district’s Hillcrest Elementary School. “We desperately need to educate our students on this.”

In 2018, students at Oakland Technical High School made a presentation to the Oakland Unified school board about why climate change should be a higher instructional priority for the district.

In January of 2019, the board updated its policy on environmental education to explicitly mention climate change and committed to connecting district sustainability projects like solar panel installation or school gardens to environmental education.

Photo: Sydney Johnson

Oakland students Mia Fassi-Fihri (left) and Sophia Roven (right) met with teachers and community groups to share why they want more climate change education in schools.

Then in April, the Oakland Youth Advisory Commission, a city commission that represents young people, passed its own resolution calling on Congress to act on climate change.

“If we aren’t educated on this topic, there’s no way we can improve as a community,” said Mia Fassi-Fihri, an 8th-grade student at Hillcrest Elementary School. “Climate change is one of the most pressing issues we face.”

The district’s previous environmental education policy did not mention climate change, according to Herberta Zulueta, secondary science coordinator for Oakland Unified. She said changing the policy was the first step to getting climate change education into more classrooms.

In Oakland Unified, about 60 percent of surveyed science teachers were not familiar with the state’s Environmental Principles and Concepts and nearly 70 percent were unfamiliar with the recently adopted board policy for environmental and climate change literacy, according to an internal poll conducted earlier this year by the district’s science department.

Those figures may be starting to change. Teachers, students and community groups recently gathered at Cole Elementary School in West Oakland to brainstorm ways to incorporate climate change lessons into their existing curriculum and met with local environmental nonprofits to discuss potential field trips, guest lectures or other ideas.

At one table, volunteers with Save the Bay, a nonprofit that works to preserve wildlife and marine habitats in the San Francisco Bay Area, spoke with teachers about a potential class project to map storm drains and see how litter could potentially get from their campus to the bay. Another high school math teacher asked for advice on reviving an unused garden on campus.

Some teachers brought their own ideas to share. Sara Shepich, a kindergarten teacher at Global Family Elementary School in Oakland Unified, said that she has talked with students about fires in the Amazon rainforest. And in September they watched videos about the Global Climate Strike, where millions of people protested for more action by government leaders on climate change, and organized their own march around campus.

But there’s a need for more support for teachers who want to teach about climate change, she said. “This is still new territory for me,” Shepich said. “We don’t have a climate change curriculum. It’s up to teachers to implement this, but the minutes (in the school day) just don’t exist.”

Oakland Unified has also convened an Environmental and Climate Change Literacy Committee that is tasked with organizing events and providing resources to help teachers integrate climate change education throughout the curriculum. Zulueta said the group, which is mostly made up of district staff, retired teachers and community group partners so far, is seeking district and outside grant funding to expand its efforts.

Photo by Sydney Johnson/EdSource

Teachers in Oakland Unified gathered at Cole Elementary to discuss ideas for climate change lessons.

Districts from San Diego to Los Angeles to Butte counties are all taking different approaches with their climate change resolutions and planning next steps.

At Salmon Creek Middle School, where Schools for Climate Action’s Guthrie teaches, students can enroll in a new elective course this school year where they can learn about climate change and advocacy. The class is an offshoot of the resolution that the Harmony Union School District in Sonoma County passed in 2018 that says the district will engage with local, state and national officials who are advocating to reduce greenhouse gasses.

The students meet once a week for an hour and work on projects for Schools for Climate Action, such as working with statewide groups like the California Association of School Psychologists to pass resolutions similar to the one passed by their district last year.

“I’m looking through the lens of my 6th-graders, and we have missed 10 days in the last two years in three different climate-related disasters,” said Guthrie, referring to catastrophic events such as the Tubbs fire in 2017. The district’s resolution has helped him frame these issues with a sense of hope.

“Having the school board clearly define climate change as a generational justice and equity issue creates a context of hope when I’m addressing climate change because I can look the kids in the eye and tell them the adults in this community know this is not OK and we want to make sure we do everything we can to address it,” Guthrie said.

In the Chico Unified School District, officials passed a resolution in March that focused on addressing climate change by making its buildings more energy-efficient.

The district had already switched to practices like buying local produce for school lunches. And the resolution aims to extend those efforts, for example, by increasing the use of solar energy.

Superintendent Kelly Staley said bringing climate change lessons into the classroom isn’t a focus for the district yet, however. “We are really using every single minute we have in the day. When we look at everything we are mandated to teach, between English, math and P.E., it’s difficult to add new things.”

Several districts in California have set up climate crisis committees through a board resolution, Guthrie said.

In September, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, announced plans to introduce a resolution to encourage the teaching of climate change in U.S. schools.

Many California school boards and education groups, such as the National School Boards Association, have yet to speak out explicitly about climate change.

When it is addressed in class, teachers and students at the Oakland event said lessons often leave out how low-income and black or Latino communities disproportionately experience the effects of climate change. They are also more likely to live near polluting sources, such as freeways or industrial plants and refineries.

“This feels like a starting place,” Brenda Tuohy, STEM director for Oakland Unified, said at the Oakland event for teachers. “If we are really going to enact (the district’s environmental and climate change literacy policy), finding resources can’t be on teachers’ own time and dime. We need to invest in what’s happening during the school day so climate change education can reach all students.”

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