Written by GEF guest blogger Linda Cato
Linda Cato is a K-12 educator and curriculum designer, green school advocate, and USGBC volunteer
Barrio Hollywood on Tucson’s west side is a neighborhood like so many in the desert-urban areas of the Southwest. With the distinct feel of a place where cultures meet and landscape is demanding, this family-oriented yet underserved community is home to predominantly Hispanic and Native American families, many of whom have lived there for generations. Wide streets are bordered by low, masonry houses and tall cacti; yards are mostly earth with a few determined plants struggling their way through the harsh extremes of the Sonoran Desert.
In this quiet and mostly overlooked community, something magical and powerful is happening. The neighborhood school, Manzo Elementary, is transforming learning, lives, and community through stellar and grass-roots green education initiatives that have now garnered national attention. This past January, Manzo was awarded the Best of Green Schools 2012 by the Center for Green Schools, USGBC. This prestigious honor recognizes top educational institutions and individuals across the country for embracing environmental initiatives.
Manzo is the only public K-12 school to be honored in this way – and it is well deserved. Manzo Elementary embodies the gold standard of best practices in green education: promoting sustainable communities, stewardship, healthy choices, innovation in learning and educational facilities, while re-envisioning education, and building the foundation for a future that is green for all.
The story of Manzo is as inspiring as the beauty of the program as it stands today. The Reconciliation Ecology Project at Manzo Elementary, as the program is known, is the brain-child of Manzo counselor Moses Thompson. Moses, with the support of principal Mark Alvarez, began with the hands-on transformation of a trash-filled and trouble-prone empty lot across the street from school,. Together with students and families, that lot was transformed into a desert biome, where indigenous plants are grown and water is harvested according to permaculture principles. Moses uses the beautiful and nurturing surroundings of this now-lush desert landscape for his student counseling sessions. This desert biome project was just the beginning. Manzo is now home to a desert tortoise habitat, an extensive solar-powered aquaponics system, organic gardens, chicken coops, composting centers, a green- house, water collection systems….and the list goes on. All of the green initiatives are integrated into and across the curriculum, and many community partnerships have been formed along the way. Manzo also hosts a weekly farmer’s market that is organized by the students, where produce from the gardens and eggs are sold, promoting green entrepreneurship and student leadership.
While the struggles of schools in under-served neighborhoods are well known to all, in Manzo we see the light of hope and transformation through the re-connection of young children to nature, to their food sources, and in the development of empathy to all living things, all as a result of this truly green program. Families once dis-enfranchised from participation in this neighborhood school are now active participants, sharing skills, culture, and tradition, through the green programs. School yards that were once dust are now full of growth and life, and students are learning in healing and nurturing surroundings. Nutritional needs are addressed as families and neighbors are eating fresh food from the school gardens and fish from the aquaponics system.
The term “Reconciliation Ecology” is defined as “the science of accommodating wild species within occupied spaces”. I think this is a fitting name for the Manzo project, and I wo uld like to extend the notion a bit further. I would offer the work being done at Manzo the name of “Reconciliation Learning”, the place in education where our humanity, our care for the planet, for all living things, for each other, is accommodated into curriculum and moved out into our communities, becoming the new norm and best practice in classroom learning everywhere. Programs like Manzo are the proof that green education matters tremendously, and that small steps lead to great changes.
After note: Citing budget shortfalls, low test-scores, and under-enrollment, Manzo Elementary, along with 16 other schools in the Tucson Unified School District, had been slated for closure by the district this past Fall. A tremendous outpouring of community support from all who recognize the vision and inspiration that is Manzo worked to convince the TUSD school board to allow Manzo to remain open. Sadly, most of the other schools will be closing. In this context, it is even more important to remember that green schools save resources and money, allowing those funds back into classrooms while cutting back on district expenditures, and that integrated curriculum and higher levels of student engagement, which we see as a result of green learning, all work together to improve student outcomes. Green schools matter in so many ways.