Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 42
 
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
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PDS Teacher Finds Time Is Right for Schools Sustainability Initiative

Linda Arntzenius

“I’ve been an environmentalist all of my life,” said Princeton resident Liz Cutler, who teaches English at Princeton Day School.

In addition to being the leading light behind the school’s in-house sustainability efforts, Ms. Cutler has initiated a new organization that will bring together 11 independent schools in the Princeton area to learn about and promote sustainability on campus by way of changes in behavior, facilities, and in the school curriculum.

“I established an environmental club at PDS early on, but I recently realized that significant change has to come at the institutional level.”

Hence the 11-member group OASIS (Organizing Action on Sustainability in Independent Schools), for which Ms. Cutler began preparing the groundwork last spring. Over the summer, she contacted school heads with the idea. “All save one were already working on sustainability, each handling it in their own way,” said the Chicago native who has been teaching at PDS since 1984.

Now, largely because of the contribution of Al Gore, the time is right for such a move, she said. “We recognize that we are all working on similar issues and can help each other move the process along faster through cooperation and support.

“There is no need for us all to be independently re-inventing the wheel; instead we can learn from each other, share ideas and inspiration.

“People have a tendency to minimize the little steps,” she said, “but a school’s carbon footprint is not just its building, it’s everyone who is part of the school. If we do not teach our students to understand their own part in this, their own impact, they will become part of the problem instead of part of the solution as the leaders we hope they will go on to become.”

Even before the group initiative, Ms. Cutler’s ideas found fertile ground among the PDS community. “PDS has rallied to this effort,” said Interim Head of School Lila Lohr. “We are proud of Liz’s remarkable commitment to engage our campus and our neighboring schools.”

Changing Behavior

“PDS started along the path to sustainability a year ago by integrating the idea into its K-12 curriculum in a natural way and by looking at behavioral patterns,” said Ms. Cutler.

Both staff and students at the school have been making special efforts to turn out lights when leaving classrooms and offices, to compost organic kitchen waste for the campus garden, to drink from reusable cups, and to reduce the amount of paper used for copies. Instead of receiving a small bottle of water with their snack, students in the lower school are being served water from a pitcher.

Even this small change in routine is a big contribution. Fourth graders calculated that snack time accounted for more than than 40,000 water bottles each year. That’s enough to form a single line of plastic bottles from the school located on the Great Road all the way to the Princeton Public Library downtown.

Undoing habits and practices that have built up over time, the school has been examining its purchases and what it recycles, as well as its building and plant practices: installing light sensors to turn out lights when not required, adjusting HVAC to respond to external temperatures, purchasing recycled paper products. “We now have no disposables in the kitchen, where the amount of local produce used has tripled,” said Ms. Cutler.

One small example is a tiny change in habit that can add up to a difference in the long run. Ms. Cutler suggested that instead of picking up silverware at the start of the lunch line, silverware is now selected at the end of the line. This small change means that only the necessary silverware is used and as a result saves on washing up.

Ms. Cutler is a member of the executive committee of Sustainable Princeton. She’s been a wilderness instructor and has worked on the Hudson River Sloop, Clearwater, the environmental education boat inspired by folk singer and activist Pete Seeger. The wooden ship serves as a moveable classroom and laboratory teaching history, biology, and environmental science as it navigates the Hudson River, New York Harbor, and Long Island Sound. In June, she received the David C. Bogle Award for her proposal to promote sustainability at PDS.

In addition to PDS, OASIS includes The Hun School, The Lawrenceville School, The Princeton Montessori School, The Peddie School, The Pennington School, Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart, Princeton Friends School, Princeton Junior School, Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, and Chapin School.

Open to all of the faculty, staff, and administration of all of the participating independent schools, the group’s first meeting will take place this weekend.

Ms. Cutler hopes that the initial conversation will seed sustainability ideas into the curriculum in addition to focusing on behavior and facilities issues

“Our goal is to bring these discussions back into our own schools in an attempt to educate, inspire and encourage others to participate in sustainability efforts in the areas of curriculum, organizational behavior, and facilities,” she said.

Sustainability can become part of the discussion whenever possible; for example in an economics lesson, in literature programs, or in a ceramics class, as when students fashioned clay coffee mugs for use instead of throwaway cups. Questions about what’s happening in the environment around the globe can become part of language classes.

By promoting understanding of the global consequences of our actions and developing ways to reduce damage, said Ms. Cutler, PDS is fulfilling its mission to graduate students prepared to “act knowledgeably, to lead thoughtfully, to share generously and to contribute meaningfully.

“The United States uses 26 percent of the world’s resources and yet it has only 5 percent of the world’s population. That just about says it all.”

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