Building a Sustainable School and Teaching the World’s Future

By Christina Wright

In this interview, Dan Schnitzer, Director of Sustainability and Operations atAcademy for Global Leadership (AGC), a Chicago Public Charter School, discusses what it means to empower all students to impact their community and the world.

Can you tell us about the history and mission of the Academy for Global Citizenship?

Photo credit: Academy for Global Leadership

AGC’s Founder and Executive Director, Sarah Elizabeth Ippel, started conceptualizing the school in her early twenties and then came to Chicago with Mayor Daley’s 2010 Renaissance Project to open up a school that was environmentally, locally, and internationally focused. One of the reasons AGC was started was to get back to why charter schools were originally created—to be laboratories for innovation for the public school system as a whole. We use as many Chicago Public Schools (CPS) vendors as we can. We try to collect data on everything we do: the process, the cost, the time we spend doing it so it can be replicable in the 600 schools that already exist and for the 410,000 students that are enrolled in CPS. We don’t need to open up our own set to do that. The buildings, the teachers, and the students are already there. We just need to look at things a little differently instead of creating something entirely new.

In August 2008, AGC welcomed its first kindergarten and first grade students. Each year, one grade level will be added until eighth grade is reached in the 2015-2016 academic year. Every child is held accountable for achieving rigorous academic expectations. Each day the students receive environmental education, wellness instruction, and lessons in organic gardening, and ecologically sustainable school-wide practices. Their meals are made entirely on-site and they’re organic and nutritionally balanced. We don’t serve red meat and we have a vegetarian option at each meal. The students really learn how to interact with their environment and learn about the entire process of growing food through our organic garden that’s incorporated into the playground. The students get to pick which vegetables and herbs they want to grow—they are responsible for watering the crops, assessing their growth, and harvesting the produce. When a particular vegetable or fruit grows really well we talk about why they think that happened. In addition to the garden, we also have three schoolyard chickens that we’ve adopted.

Why was Chicago’s Southside chosen as the location for the school?

There are a lot of parents and families in the neighborhood who care about their children’s future and education. This area is an underserved community, and they don’t necessarily have the best access to the best schools. AGC allows families throughout the community to invest in their children’s future.

What types of academic experiences or opportunities do children have at the Academy for Global Citizenship that they might not have at another public schools in our country? What distinguishes the Academy for Global Citizenship from other public schools?

As a charter school we have a heightened level of accountability, but we also have a higher level of autonomy that allows us to make decisions on our own. There are things that distinguish us, but I think that’s an appropriate answer for any school. Each school has its own culture and community. We try to learn from every school, regardless of whether or not they are a public, private, or public charter school. We try to learn from colleges and universities. Throughout each school there are great achievements, and it’s incredibly important to share these successes.

From your perspective, and as the Director of Sustainability and Operations, what are the AGC’s greatest achievements?

Our greatest achievements are what we hear from our parents and students. When we hear the way our students ask questions or interact with guests, it’s amazing to see how engaged the students are, how inquisitive they are, and to see the people they’re becoming. I wouldn’t say it’s an achievement of AGC; it’s an achievement of our students and parents. AGC created an environment to foster this growth. Another great achievement is our students’ parents, who are incredibly involved and show up every day to volunteer with a variety of projects at the school. We are never short of volunteers. For instance, we had one father come to his child’s class to help out with math just because he wanted to come in and help. We had a number of parents who came and worked in the hot weather to help us build the organic garden because they care about their children’s education, and the garden is part of it. Other achievements are more operational. We’re extremely proud of our food program. We’re truly proud to create a zero-waste food program, to be able to compost. We’re updating our sustainability handbook which is really exciting, too.

How can other members of the community become involved with the Academy for Global Citizenship?

We always have volunteer opportunities available to parents and members of the community. They definitely provide the school with an enormous amount of assistance. We also offer a variety of workshops throughout the year, from computer literacy to organic gardening to cooking. We have a bunch of different internship programs. Right now I’m working with two sustainability interns on different projects. We really try to mold the internships so it’s mutually beneficial. They’re interested in what they’re doing and learning, and in turn, they’re helping AGC. We also have afterschool programs where volunteers or parents can lead activities and projects. AGC is really trying to be a positive presence in the community. It gives people an opportunity to come out and take ownership of their community.

Do you have any new and exciting projects for the 2011-2012 school year?

We do have a couple big projects we’re working on. One of them that’s really exciting is updating our sustainability handbook, which is on the front page of our website, which is all focused on achieving sustainability at school. It’s written for a variety of audiences, including administrators, parents, teachers, and custodial staff. A lot of time and energy was spent writing this handbook so it was appealing to such a wide variety of audiences. For instance, the energy section talks about different art projects that teachers can do with their students, but also provides information for where you can buy energy efficient light bulbs.

The second big project we’re working on is with our food service provider, Chicago Botanic Gardens, and CPS to create a food safety manual that will provide standards and procedures in order to officially allow produce from the school garden to go directly into the cafeteria and be served to students. We’re also working on a culinary internship program. CPS has a lot of culinary programs, so we would bring in a few culinary students over the course of three to four months at a time to work with our food program to learn the ins and outs of a commercial and school kitchen to gain hands on skills.

Where do you see the Academy in the next five years? Are there plans to expand operations?

We’ll continue to grow at a grade level each year. We’ll continue to do things that are student and education centric. We actually are in the early stages of planning an overnight trip for our fourth-grade students. Some of them have been camping before, but others have never been out of an urban center, so that will be really exciting. We’re also working to build our permanent facility, which will be net-positive produced energy, which means we produce more energy over the course of the year than we consume. The new facility will also have an on-site waste water treatment, two to three acres of organic farm production on-site, a small orchard, an energy-producing playground, among other great features.

What do you think of the Academy for Global Leadership? Tell us in the comments!

Christina Wright was a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

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