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One Food Scrap, One Water Drop at a Time, Youngest Learners Strive for a More Sustainable World

When composting came to Durham Academy’s Preschool and Lower School campus this year, students and faculty welcomed the sustainability practice with open arms — and in third-grader Braden’s case, a slam dunk. 

“My favorite part is when I get banana peels and orange peels — I go up and chuck it in [the compost bin] and go, ‘job well done,’” he said. 

For DA to make progress toward its sustainability goals, it will take each student, teacher and faculty member doing their part, like Braden, and these efforts have taken on momentum across all four school divisions. The work is aided by a grant from DA’s Innovation Journey Fund, which aims to fuel the kind of innovation called for by the Strategic Vision

At the Preschool level, science teacher Denise Shaw (who serves as the division’s sustainability coordinator) has been working with teachers to shine a spotlight on both recycling and composting. Each Preschool classroom now has its own recycling bin and composting bin, and DA community members from other campuses have pitched in to help students learn to dispose of their waste responsibly. 

In October, members of the Upper School Student Government Sustainability Committee led a kindergarten assembly about composting, followed by waste-sorting games in each classroom. A good general rule of thumb, they said, is if something was once alive (like vegetables, meat scraps or paper towels), it is compostable. In November, Middle School science teacher Dr. Theresa Shebalin taught Preschoolers about what can and cannot be recycled (for example, paper must be at least as big as a sticky note).

“The children (and teachers!) now seem to have a much better understanding of the difference between recyclable and compostable materials. And, since we are regularly recycling and composting, we are generating much less trash,” Shaw explained. “Teaching our Preschoolers about composting is beneficial to everyone in our Preschool community and beyond. 

“The children are being empowered to make thoughtful, responsible decisions about their actions and to learn about the interconnectedness of our world,” she continued. “The children are also instructing their parents about sustainability, hopefully impacting their parents' purchasing decisions and disposal options.”

Like DA’s Middle and Upper School campuses, which have been composting for a couple of years now, the Preschool/Lower School is partnering with CompostNow, a local commercial composting service, to turn food scraps and used paper towels into Earth-nourishing compost. Each classroom has its own small CompostNow bin, and at least once a week, students dump the compostable scraps into large bins outside, which the service empties weekly. There are also paper towel receptacles in each restroom.

Jack, a second-grader, is so dedicated to the initiative that he volunteers to take out the Hinton Heroes’ compost every week. He and his family have composted at home for a while now, and he was happy to be able to continue the practice at school.

“Because then we don’t have so much bad stuff in the Earth — we can reuse it instead of just dumping it into the Earth,” he said. “I would say that I think that you should get a compost bin [at home] because it’s good for the Earth, and it’s a good use of food that you don’t want. If you don’t like it, you could give it to a family member, and if they don’t want it, you have somewhere to put it.”

Sanju Patel ’23 is a member of the student Sustainability Committee and the Sustainability Leadership Team (otherwise comprising adults in the DA community), and he is also a student in the Upper School’s Environmental Sustainability in Action elective course. He helped plan and lead the Preschool composting assembly and has worked with Lower School students in camps and other sustainability initiatives. To Patel, it’s important to work with the youngest learners on campus because “the habits of today are less important than the habits of tomorrow" — and "little kids have the best ideas."

The youngsters have embraced new sustainability practices on their campus, and they’ve been on the lookout for ways to make a further impact. For example, Jared, a second-grader, learned about TerraCycling (a way to recycle traditionally non-recyclable food packaging like granola bar wrappers) from his fifth-grade sibling, who makes use of the Middle School’s TerraCycle collection boxes. 

“Whenever I eat with a TerraCyclable wrapper, I just put it in my lunchbox and take it home to my sister so she can bring it to the Middle School,” he said.

The Lower School has hosted two sustainability-related assemblies this fall: one on composting led by Upper School Sustainability Committee members, and the other focusing on a composting recap and the impact that can be made by reducing unnecessary water usage. Students were challenged to turn off the water while washing their hands and turn off the water while brushing their teeth. If everyone at Durham Academy followed those water-saving practices, an estimated 1.1 million gallons of water could be saved a year, said Tracy Riddle, a second-grade teacher and the Lower School’s sustainability coordinator.

“We've emphasized that our efforts are to decrease the amount of items sent to the landfill,” she explained. “This is where our students can practice their moral DA skills — taking responsibility for their impact on our Earth and being mindful.”

Another component of the Lower School’s sustainability efforts is to reduce the amount of waste generated by events — such as the Second Grade Food Truck Rodeo in November, where more was collected for recycling and composting than for the landfill.

“We have a distance to go. This definitely won't happen overnight,” Riddle said. “But many people are excited about different aspects of the movement toward sustainability. Hopefully their excitement can be nurtured. The moral roots of their intentions can be put to authentic engagement and practice making them happy and productive ‘sustainable-izers.’ ”

Tina Bessias, DA’s overall sustainability coordinator and an instructor for the Upper School Environmental Sustainability in Action course, said it’s been heartening to see the school’s youngest learners jump in with such enthusiasm: “Becoming more sustainable is going to take all of us working together, and the Pre- and Lower Schoolers have something special to add because they aren't stuck in their ways. We need their imagination and energy!”



Carbon Footprint Presentation: Dec. 19

Upper Schoolers in the Environmental Sustainability in Action course have been working with team members from Green Places — a Raleigh-based startup that partners with businesses around the nation to reduce their environmental impact — to calculate Durham Academy’s carbon footprint. This effort is part of the overall SustainABLE DA Innovation Journey Fund project.

These students and representatives of Green Places will present on the carbon footprint findings on Monday, Dec. 19, at 10:30 a.m. in the Upper School’s Kenan Auditorium (note that this is a location change. All interested members of the DA community are invited to attend.

The presentation will consist of a summary of the Green Places carbon emissions report, followed by brief reports by the nine students in the class about projects they're designing. The student projects are intended to contextualize the Green Places report and help the DA community look forward to reducing its emissions. “It will be a big moment in the SustainABLE DA Innovation Journey,” Bessias said.

Learn more about sustainability efforts at Durham Academy via the Living Sustainably blog; subscribe so you don’t miss updates!