First Person

Composting in a Concrete Jungle

Budget cuts are reducing bus service and meal choices, but they’re not cutting down on the waste in our schools.

Schools such as PS 333 (The Manhattan School for Children) want to change that by starting composting programs to teach their students that food waste does not have to end up in a landfill. Instead, the schools are teaching, food waste can be used to create rich black soil that will nourish plants students can eat in the future. Students learn the invaluable lesson of decay, regrowth, and the cycles of life.

The voluntary composting program the Manhattan School for Children is initiating could one day be mandatory, not just for our schools but our entire city. That’s because composting is an environmentally superior alternative to landfilling organics that eliminates methane production and substantially reduces greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, ton for ton, composting reduces greenhouse gas emissions from organics management over any other management option. Citywide composting is already in place in cities like Seattle and Berkeley, Calif.

The Manhattan School for Children, a K-8 school with both a Wellness Committee and a Green Team, has made sustainability issues a top priority. This fall the school will be completing an ambitious greenhouse project with a scheduled opening for Nov. 5. The greenhouse will serve as a science-based learning lab and will play a key role in the school’s composting program, which came about in large part to two of the school’s parents, Manuela Zamora and Sidsel Robards.

We spoke with Melanie Sherman, a parent at the school and nutritionist who has helped to spearhead many of PS 333’s “green” initiatives. She explained to us that the school has composting bins in every classroom, where the students compost paper, fruit, vegetables, egg shells, tea leaves and coffee grinds. Their compost bins are homemade using wriggler worms and paper.

Melanie told us:

You can buy finished bins at the Lower East Side Ecology Center for $55 each. We chose to build our own and ended up spending less —  about $15 for a large plastic bin. The custodians at the school helped drill holes along the top of the bins for air vents. Each bin needs a pound of worms, which are around $22 per pound. We bought worms from several places — the ones from The Lower East Side Ecology Center were great.

The Lower East Side Ecology Center played an important role in helping PS 333 set up its composting system. The center conducted a workshop with the teachers where they handed out informational flyers as well as offered an emergency hotline for anyone with questions. There were also books that the teachers and parents used to educate themselves and the students. The most popular were “Worms Eat Our Garbage: Classroom Activities for a Better Environment” and “Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System.” A parent at the school got a grant from Lowe’s that covered the costs of the bins and worms as part of the Greenhouse Project.

The school’s Green Team also recruited older kids as “ambassadors” to teach the younger students the values and “how to’s” of composting. Involving older students as educators is an excellent way of letting the students know that the composting system is their accomplishment — and their responsibility to feed and maintain.

Melanie did admit to us that one classroom had “a big problem” with fruit flies, but she assured us that fruit flies can be avoided by microwaving the fruit waste before adding it to the bin (a great tip). Even so, some classrooms chose not to put fruit in their bins.  Fruit or no fruit, the compost collected from the classes will go to the school’s newly constructed greenhouse as well as to the local greenmarket.

When we asked Melanie what advice she had for parents wanting to start a composting system at their school, we couldn’t help but notice her own childlike enthusiasm:

Keep at it — it is definitely a learning curve both for the teachers and kids, but I think it is a great teaching tool. We have several families who now compost in their NYC apartments. One pound of worms in a bin can eat up to 3 pounds of waste in a week — if you are going out of town, you can throw in an apple and the New York Times and they will be fine for a week.

The Manhattan School for Children plans to launch a website later this year with ideas and events for people interested in composting. The school’s goal is to become a model school for a “Green, Clean, Sustainable and Healthy” environment for New York City’s children. We look forward to keeping you posted on their future accomplishments.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.