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Prince George’s schools are going green with new climate action plan

Prince George's County school board adopted 58 recommendations of a climate action group this week that will mean more environmental initiatives for the system's students. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The Prince George’s County school system is embarking on a climate action plan that would reduce its carbon footprint and offer more robust curriculums on environmental justice.

The plan includes 58 recommendations from a work group of students, parents, teachers and administrators and was unanimously approved by the school board Thursday. The recommendations include initiatives that would reduce the amount of food waste and nonrenewable energy from the school system. The plan also includes adding lessons for students on topics like construction design using recyclable materials.

The plan started developing last year after students pushed the board of education to prioritize climate action initiatives. In March 2021, the board passed a resolution that included pledges to run the school system on 100 percent clean-sourced energy by 2030, and contribute zero landfill waste by 2040.

As the board passed that resolution, it also created the work group that was tasked with crafting the plan presented Thursday. Board member Pamela Boozer-Strother (District 3), who co-chaired the focus group, called it “a deep dive into every aspect of our school system.”

“The students are hungry for this information,” Boozer-Strother said in an interview. “They let us know through the process from their own research and experience that PGCPS could be doing more.”

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Joseph Jakuta, a parent of two in the school system and co-chair of the group, said implementing the plan would demonstrate leadership on environmental sustainability and resiliency for younger generations.

“If we don’t act, [my children’s] generation’s education will suffer more if we have to spend more and more on volatile energy prices and rebuilding after floods instead of on education,” Jakuta said. “But you are making a difference.”

Three students spoke at Thursday’s meeting urging the board to approve the plan.

“I’ll be 14 when I finish middle school. By then, I want to see reduced amounts of plastic used every year,” said Ezra Thomas, a seventh-grader at Kenmoor Middle School. He added the plan would encourage students instead to recycle.

Nithin Gudderra, an 11th-grader at Oxon Hill High School, pointed to warming temperatures in the ocean that were melting glaciers and wildfires across California as evidence of the toll climate change was taking on his future.

“I’m unsure what my future will look like,” Gudderra said to the board. “I want to have children, but I don’t know if that’s ethically or morally acceptable if we continue on the path we’re on right now.”

Maryland lawmakers have previously tried to bolster efforts to teach about climate change. In 2014, the governors of Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia and West Virginia and the mayor of the District of Columbia signed the Chesapeake Watershed Agreement that included a goal of requiring students to learn how to protect the watershed, said Laura Johnson Collard, the executive director of the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education. And in 2011, state officials passed a regulation that requires environmental literacy as a high school graduation requirement.

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Prince George’s County is one of Maryland’s leading school systems when it comes to tackling environmental issues, Johnson Collard said. As the second-largest school district in Maryland, it has 141 schools that are Green Schools-certified — the most of any school district in the state. The certification goes to schools that demonstrate significant efforts toward maintaining and improving environmental sustainability.

The William S. Schmidt Outdoor Education Center — based in Brandywine, Md. — has taken the lead on teaching students environmental literacy. Donald Belle, an environmental outreach director for the organization and member of the work group, said the ultimate goal is to give students and staffers the information “to act on the climate change emergency.” The climate action plan accomplishes that, by embedding environmental literacy across different subjects.

Some students are already taking direct action by composting regularly in their schools, and the school system’s climate action plan provides a framework for more schools to join, he said.

“It allows for greater opportunity for our students to be part of the solution,” he said.