“It’s not extra”: Burroughs Elementary School’s Recycling Program Inspires Excitement and Achieves Excellence
Burroughs Elementary School (Ward 5) was selected as the 2017 DCPS Recycles! Honor Roll success story for its exemplary teamwork and school-wide recycling innovations that are creating a culture of global citizenship. Look for their gold star on the DCPS Recycles! Honor Roll map! Burroughs invites any interested school leaders or staff to visit and learn from their success! Contact us to facilitate a visit to Burroughs or another a green star school near you.
Contact: Meggan Davis
At lunchtime on the warm and bright Friday before Spring Break, the cafeteria at Burroughs Elementary School lay quiet. Students weren’t skipping lunch—on this day, lunch had moved outside for the school’s first annual Spring Garden Party. Also moved to the garden: the cafeteria waste sorting station, which has become a normal fixture at mealtimes.
“There’s different bins where we put recycle, compost, and garbage” said a Burroughs fifth grader at the picnic. ”It’s very fun to do.”
Though the picnic was all fun and games, it revealed that through rigorous environmental and recycling education, the teachers, operations staff, and leadership at Burroughs are creating a joyful culture of global citizenship at their school.
Students take ownership of the program. They will confidently tell you in which bin your waste belongs, and what happens to the waste in each bin when it leaves their building. They will tell you why recycling is important to them. Some students will even eagerly bury their hands in compost to show you the worms in their classroom worm bin.
Teamwork Makes the Green Dream Work
The creation of a school culture that normalizes recycling did not happen overnight. For nearly 3 years, teacher Alison Ewing and several colleagues had spearheaded various recycling education efforts in the school, including participating in the DC Recycle Right competition, but continued to encounter obstacles when trying to instate a school-wide recycling effort. It was not until custodian Calep Epps and Ms. Ewing began to work together that the program truly began to take shape.
The two first began talking about recycling one day in November 2016, when DCPS Recycles! School Conservation Coordinator Beth Gingold was paying a visit to Ms. Ewing’s classroom to conduct a teacher training. Mr. Epps was in the classroom to empty the trash, and was drawn into their conversation.
“After talking with Ms. Ewing, we were able to make just a few small changes to get the program going in the whole building,” said Mr. Epps. He had recently come to Burroughs from Langdon Elementary School and was already well versed in the recycling program. When asked about recycling, he pulled out his smartphone and showed Ms Ewing the DCPS Recycles Waste Management Procedures SY16-17. Using this guide, they determined together which standardized supplies they would need to order from the Department of General Services (DGS).
The two overcame several challenges to make the program a success. Thanks to support from school leadership, the pair was able to surmount staff skepticism about whether the organics recycling program could be successful. First, they worked together to improve school-wide collection and sorting and developed innovative hallway sorting stations, where teachers empty their own recycling bins. Building on this success, they decided to officially roll out the organics recycling at the end of January this year.
For the cafeteria, the initial plan was to start sorting during only 5th grade lunch and phase in the program, but the 2nd graders soon wanted to know if they could do it too! Mr. Alvin Smith, custodial foreman, was quick to appreciate the operational benefits of the program once it got started and supported expanding the program. After about two months, both lunch periods were sorting waste effortlessly.
The kitchen quickly began sorting as well; Mr. Epps’ expertise and the kitchen staff’s enthusiasm to learn made sorting in the kitchen simple once DGS had provided signage and a brief training.
A number of other actions have made the DCPS Recycles! program at Burroughs particularly successful. Ms. Ewing started a recycling committee, which distributes work and allows for participants to get credit under IMPACT (DCPS’s system for assessing and rewarding staff performance). Behavior Technician Mr. Azim Ross selects volunteers to lead bin monitoring during meal times. Ms. Sofia, a FoodCorps Fellow serving through a partnership with the Office of State Superintendent of Education, connects cafeteria sorting with learning by teaching students about compost using a worm bin in her classroom. Together, Ms. Ewing and Ms. Sofia also run an after-school recycling club where students can learn more about the waste cycle.
At this year’s spring STEM Expo, Burroughs’ STEM Program Coordinator Ms. Kellogg and Ms. Sofia will help their students to lead composting for the event.
School Recycling Leaders Take the Long View
The school-wide effort to make sustainable actions a norm is creating a culture where students are challenged to think about their connection to the planet and community, and find joy in this connection. Leaders at Burroughs each appreciate a different way that this culture will positively impact the school and students’ futures.
“As a principal, I look at it in the long-term. Some people think of the [recycling] program as something extra—it’s not. It is a critical component of making our kids productive citizens,” said Burroughs Principal LeVar Jenkins. “We have to ask, are our students going to remember this moment? And the answer is yes—they will.”
From an educational perspective, Ms. Ewing values that kids are enthusiastic about the program, and are interested in learning about waste. “I’m really excited about everyone in the school learning about how we can reduce waste,” said Ms. Ewing. “It seems like everything we learn supports the fact that we should be doing this.”
Mr. Epps sees that a robust recycling program reduces the workload for the operations and maintenance team, enabling the building to operate more efficiently over time. “Before we started sorting at lunch, we used to take out 6-8 bags [of waste] every day. Now, we take out 5 at most, and the bags weigh less,” he said.
Burroughs is Creating Future Citizens for a Sustainable DC
As a DCPS Recycles! success story, Burroughs Elementary School reminds us that sustainability and recycling education in DC schools is not something extra—it is essential. Educating students on sustainability concepts through hands-on learning—such as sorting paper and organics recycling on a daily basis, or offering STEM-based garden lessons— promotes equity and excellence by preparing all students in DC schools to participate in the future envisioned by the Sustainable DC plan. These opportunities excite students, inspire them to share their learning with their families, and keep them coming back to school each day with purpose and a smile.
To learn from the success of previous honorees, see Van Ness Elementary School Early Childhood Students Lead the Way in Recycling, Earth Day 2016 and C.W. Harris Gives Back to the Earth, Earth Day 2015.
*Schools who made the 2017 Honor Roll with Distinction are denoted on the Honor Roll map by a green star.