With Focus on Sustainability, Students Look to Create a Brighter Future

Story and Photography by Melody Guyton Butts

As his junior year at Durham Academy neared a close, Chaz Strickland ’22 was doing a lot of thinking about what’s next. There’s college, work, life as a young adult — lots to work toward and look forward to.

“But I think if we continue to ignore sustainability, the future that I’m preparing for won’t come to fruition,” said Strickland, co-chair of the Upper School Student Government Sustainability Committee. “And so as I start thinking more and more about that as my time at DA comes to a close, I think sustainability becomes more and more important in my mind.”

With a bigger-than-ever observation of Earth Day this spring, Strickland and fellow environmentally minded students and faculty hope that sustainability is top of mind for many others, too. DA’s 2021 Earth Day celebration spanned an entire week, bringing together Upper Schoolers, Lower Schoolers and Preschoolers to appreciate nature and give the Earth some TLC.

In recent years, the Upper School has worked to incorporate sustainability into both student life and the curriculum, starting with the inclusion of a Sustainability Committee when Student Government restructured in 2019. Co-chairing this year’s committee with Strickland is Sanju Patel ’23, who said that being able to bring campus sustainability discussions to the same table as ones about student life and academics “shows that we’re really valued — that the things we talk about are one of the most important things that student government can consider.”

The 2020–2021 school year brought even more of a focus on sustainability in the Upper School, with the addition of a sustainability component to the required ninth-grade Self and Community course. The sustainability-focused class meetings are led by faculty member Tina Bessias ’78, who took on the newly created role of Upper School sustainability coordinator this year.

Living Sustainably is the name of the course,” she said. “It’s the concept of what we have to do as a school, as individuals, as a community, as a country — we have to make a big change in direction here in terms of how we live our daily lives. We’re using up too many of the Earth’s resources. It’s not sustainable.”

One huge wake-up call for Bessias and many others at DA was the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which called for cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 50% by 2030. And beyond the importance of the school being a responsible member of the global community, it was becoming obvious that the health of DA’s own students called for taking action.

“In multiple surveys, a majority of Upper School students reported feeling high levels of worry and even hopelessness about the state of the planet they will inherit,” Bessias said. “Earth Day is about celebrating the planet and taking actions that foster hope.”

Upper School Sustainability Committee members and all ninth-graders (through the Living Sustainably course) worked for several weeks to create opportunities for students of all ages to get their hands dirty as they celebrate and nurture the Earth. Several ninth-graders got knee-deep in mud to plant a pollinator garden by the track alongside Pickett Road, while others posted Earth Day signs created by their classmates and Lower Schoolers around campus.

Other activities included Upper Schoolers helping lead Lower Schoolers on nature walks and scavenger hunts, and helping kindergartners plant seeds. Several ninth-graders even arrived on campus a half-hour early to collect household compost scraps as parents dropped off students.

“One thing we are trying to focus on this year is to instill value in nature throughout the entire DA system,” Patel said. “We talked about how can we help teachers understand this and incorporate it into their curriculum? How can we help students understand it and even parents when they’re dropping their kids off at school? If we have that knowledge through the whole school, that’s a really good way to build sustainability.”

“We think that that education cannot start early enough, because you really form strong opinions of the world when you are in Preschool and when you are in the Lower School — that is a formative period of your life,” Strickland added.

Fourth-grade teaching assistant and ninth-grade parent Kim Hackman was delighted for the Upper Schoolers to work with her students.

“It was so nice to celebrate Earth Day by having some DA ninth-graders come to the Lower School to share their passion for living sustainably,” she said. “DA students spent time together planting seeds, collecting compost and sharing ideas for how we can all help with conserving Earth’s resources. I don’t think we could have asked for better role models than our own ninth-graders.”

In addition to the on-campus activities, ninth-graders created a Living Sustainably website, which they populated with ideas for families to celebrate Earth Day and make changes toward a more sustainable lifestyle. Lydia Amanueal ’24 was among a group of ninth-graders focusing on Count Us In, a platform in which one can pledge to take a step toward reducing carbon emissions — like flying less, adjusting a home thermostat or cutting food waste. Amanueal created a video that emphasizes the importance of taking action.

“Especially as a community, l think we all need to contribute to a vision for a better future for the rest of our lives and also the later generations,” she said. “We’re all dependent on the Earth.”

Check out the Class of 2024’s Living Sustainably website: