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State superintendent highlights SFUSD’s environmental efforts in blueprint for state

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Tom Torlakson works with students at Lincoln High School on September 15, 2015

From whale watching to drought awareness, San Francisco’s public school classrooms already tackle environmental issues.

But a plan unveiled by State Superintendent Tom Torlakson at Lincoln High School in The City on Tuesday seeks to improve environmental studies throughout California.

The report, “A Blueprint for Environmental Literacy,” encourages teachers to bring students outside and let them learn directly in and from the environment. That’s key to teaching students to care about the Earth, Torlakson said.

“[During] the recession, a lot of programs were cut back, including some of the outdoor education programs,” Torlakson told the San Francisco Examiner. “So we’re encouraging schools to bring [back] those hands-on [lessons] so that students can experience the outdoors and see nature firsthand, as well as study it in a textbook.”

Last year, Torlakson convened a 47-member environmental literacy task force — co-chaired by Elizabeth Babcock of the California Academy of Sciences and Craig Strang of the Lawrence Hall of Science — to explore the state of environmental education in California and recommend areas of improvement.

Among the recommendations were to increase firsthand environmental experiences like a school garden or field trips, and to integrate environmental education with other subjects, like English, math and science.
That’s a route Lincoln High is already familiar with. In fact, Lincoln High’s unique Green Academy pathways program incorporates environmental studies with other courses for about three dozen sophomores, juniors and seniors each year.

In a recent lesson students studying economics were tasked with finding the incentive for customers to bring their own recyclable bags to the grocery store, explained Valerie Ziegler, coordinator of the school’s Green Academy program.

“The focus is, if we want to encourage people to use a reusable water bottle or bring a recycle bag, what do we do? We can charge them,” Ziegler said. “It’s an environmental issue, looked at through an economic content matter.”

San Francisco Assemblymembers David Chiu and Phil Ting, on hand for Tuesday’s event at Lincoln High along with San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Richard Carranza, stressed the importance of students taking a stand to protect the environment.

“At a time when we are experiencing drought, forest fires, El Nino, sea level rise, extreme weather conditions, we don’t have a moment to waste when it comes to protecting the environment,” Chiu said.
Ting added that even teaching students how to garden, compost or save water can have a widespread effect.

“Climate change is one of the biggest issues of our time,” Ting said. “We really [need to] prepare our young people to understand the environment and how it impacts our Earth. That education can’t start early enough.”

Lincoln High seniors Jennifer Oliveros, 16, Melanie Medina, 16, and Jacob Lopez, 17, who have studied environmental science since their sophomore year as part of the Green Academy program, appreciate learning about their carbon footprint.

But it’s their whale watching field trip Wednesday that will bring their most exciting lesson yet.
“Humpback whales and gray whales, probably some sharks,” Oliveros said of what she expects to see.

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