Midtown Schools Reduce Carbon Footprint, Increase Leadership Skills

School for Community Learning students work on gardens. Photo by Patricia Wildhack.

by Cheryl Reed

Two years ago, Katie Robinson watched in awe as students from Youth Power Indiana, a program of Earth Charter Indiana (ECI), petitioned the Indianapolis City-County Council to commit to carbon neutrality by 2050. As the youths made eloquent, fact-based arguments supporting their request, Robinson thought about her young daughter.

“I realized that she’ll be dealing with the business end of climate change in her thirties—when she’ll be the age I am right now,” said Robinson, director of the City of Indianapolis Office of Sustainability, or SustainIndy. “And it all became even more real.”

The City-County Council was similarly impressed, and enacted a resolution that led to SustainIndy’s Thrive Indianapolis, a 59-step roadmap to reduce carbon emissions. SustainIndy is now working with ECI to implement one of those steps, the Thriving Schools Challenge. SustainIndy provides grant funding and guidance for schools that take part. ECI offers support and expertise.

In its first year, more than 30,000 students participated in 149 sustainability projects at 52 schools. Midtown participant schools included Bishop Chatard, IPS Center for Inquiry 84, Christ the King, International School, IPS/Butler University Laboratory School 60, Northside Montessori, School for Community Learning (SCL), St. Richard’s Episcopal, and St. Thomas Aquinas.


SCL has a deep focus on sustainability but made the most of its acreage near the Butler campus to build a series of gardens. All of SCL’s 81 educators, administrators, and students were involved. Kindergarteners and first-graders created bug hotels for winter shelter. Second- and third-graders planted edible and medicinal herbs. Fourth- and fifth-graders focused on bird attraction, and sixth- through eighth-graders built space for pollinators like bees, butterflies, and wasps.

Research, planning, care, and analysis activities were built into class curricula. Soil analysis was conducted and experts in herbology and ornithology were brought to help students plan and understand how the gardens will play a positive ecological role. Parents got into the action as well, helping weed and maintain the gardens over the summer. They’ll be in full bloom when students return to class.

“It was amazing to get that grant to support the program,” said school head Patricia Wildhack. “We’ll use these gardens for years and years.”

Bishop Chatard used its grant to collect leftover cafeteria food for Green with Indy, a composting facility. “We’ll definitely re-apply,” said Catherine Welch, the school’s Green Team moderator, adding that the school is continually looking for ways to add to its green initiatives.

CFI 84’s mission statement includes helping students become “socially responsible contributors to a changing global society,” and the school already had food recovery, recycling, and reusable water bottles projects. They added an air quality project that included gathering data about the effect of vehicles idling at pick-up and drop-off times. They also improved recycling and waste reduction programs and relaunched a Bike Club.

Center for Inquiry at School 84

International Baccalaureate coordinator Rachel Green Sharpe was project lead, but ideas and work came mostly from about two dozen students who had to overcome unexpected challenges. The no-idling campaign, for example, hit a snag when the students realized they didn’t have access to power for their air monitor.

“They decided to build a solar-powered battery system to power the monitor,” Green Sharpe said. “They were the ones who designed it, told me what parts to order, and built it!”

The students also discovered food was being tossed in recycling bins, rendering the recyclables unrecyclable. A newly designed and launched education campaign put a stop to that.

“We’re already talking about the possibility of piloting a composting program to reduce cafeteria waste next year as a new Thriving School project, and we hope to continue the no-idling project and really get it working well, including providing regular reports on air quality to the school community,” Green Sharpe said.


Because the projects are generally student-led, those who participate learn more than how to compost, reduce energy usage, increase biking and no-idling programs, or create medicinal or pollinating gardens. They also learn the science behind the issue of climate change and actions that can address it along with problem-solving, critical thinking, and leadership skills.

Those are lessons sorely needed, ECI’s executive director Jim Poyser said, lamenting political polarization and a drop in civic discourse among policymakers and apathy among adults. “Our kids are the only hope we have to elevate the conversation and get things done,” he said. “Ignoring this powerful group of young people would be to ignore this profound challenge.”

Green Sharpe agrees. “I am constantly impressed by the level of thinking and passion our students bring to conversations about the environment. To anyone who would say otherwise, I can tell you that they are not naïve, immature kids who don’t understand the way the world works. They understand it all too well and are calling us adults out on our complacency,” she said. “It is invigorating to witness and causes me to be a constant learner and self-critic as well.”

Key to the Thriving Schools Challenge is that, in addition to providing funds for schools to implement projects, it gives stipends ranging from $250 to $1,000 to the teachers who help guide students and oversee the projects. Robinson and Poyser said even the smallest stipend is well received by teachers who often spend their own money to pay for classroom materials. Because Poyser and Wildhack are married, Poyser said he recused himself from adjudicating the awards to Thriving Schools Challenge schools.

Eager to start promoting the second year of the program, Robinson said Poyser’s idea of relying on the school kids to help save the planet isn’t a bad one. And she agrees that there’s a chance their enthusiasm will trickle up. “These students are able to say they’ve had a hand in making their school and the entire state better,” Robinson said. “That’s not just exciting—it’s inspirational.”

Schools will soon be able to apply for the second year of the program, and those who received first-year funding are encouraged to apply again. “There’s a lot of opportunity in energy efficiency and waste minimization,” Robinson said. “We can’t wait to see what the students come up with next year.”

Cheryl Reed is a freelance writer who lives in the Canterbury neighborhood.

Applications for the 2020 Thriving Schools Challenge are due Oct. 6, 2019.