How they're going to do it ... Lawton Elementary students take a village

It's a neighborhood pulled from dreams.

Encircling the shores of a small lake, modern houses, apartments and live/work studios share space with hobbit holes, tree houses, tepees and traditional Native longhouses. The paths around the lake are lined with communal gardens and small play fields. All electrical power is generated by solar panels and windmills, and next to the lake sits a greenhouse/bioreactor water-treatment plant. There are no fences, no keep out signs. Traffic lights and driveways are entirely un-necessary. You won't find a single car, but each and every neighbor is equipped with a bicycle.

This neighborhood - or Eco Village - which currently exists only as a beautifully rendered architectural scale model, is still too small for human habitation, but the fourth- and fifth-grade students of Lawton Elementary School are working on getting that changed. They've spent the past year working on every detail of the model, a year of planning, designing, researching, creating and dreaming.

It's far from a simple arts-and-crafts project with an environmental message. The students have taken great pains to apply it to the real world. Now that the model has been completed, they will submit their plan to the city as a proposal for a way to use seven acres of the land to be vacated after the Navy decommissions its military housing in Discovery Park.

For fourth-grade teacher Peter Hubbard, the invaluable experience his students have gained from working on this project represents an educational philosophy that emphasizes kids' involvement in solving real world problems.

"There's an element of a fantasy in what we've been doing," Hubbard says, with a nod to the model's hobbit house, "but we're also grappling with some immediate real-life issues, and there's a lot of powerful learning in that."

This philosophy was showcased last Thursday, June 15, when Lawton hosted an introductory meeting of Seattle Green Schools, a newly formed network hoping to encourage positive, hands-on environmental education activities in local schools. In an effort to inspire representatives from other schools in the district, the meeting included a student presentation on the Eco Village plan, as well a rundown of Lawton's successful pilot lunchroom composting program.

The composting plan, undertaken by Hubbard and parent Chris Jordan at the beginning of the school year, was originally an experiment confined only to the fourh-grade lunch period. Due to the enthusiasm and drive of student volunteers, however, the cafeteria now recycles appropriate food waste during all lunch periods. If the Lawton program at its current rate of success is taken districtwide, Hubbard and his students have calculated that more than a million pounds of garbage could be recycled each a year.

Pioneer effort

The ease of Lawton's composting effort is unprecedented in the district. Hubbard, who has been teaching for 20 years, recalls previous composting attempts at other schools.

"When I was teaching at Kimball [Elementary]," he says, "we tried using worm boxes. It was a nightmare: too much waste and not enough time and space to let it decompose properly. Now with Cedar Grove, we're able to make everything run relatively smoothly."

Cedar Grove Composting Inc., the largest composting company in the state, recycles food waste on an industrial scale. Working with Rabanco, which handles curbside recycling in Seattle, they provide composting bins next to cafeteria trashcans and other recycling bins.

If the program is to succeed, the compost can't be contaminated with other kinds of waste. And that crucial bin-monitoring work falls entirely to the students.

Hubbard let his fourth-graders decide for themselves how to approach the task. Ten-year-old Hanako Osuga volunteered to act as coordinator. Every lunch period, she enlists two students to serve as monitors who ensure the proper separation of garbage from various recyclable materials.

"People just come up to me all the time and say, 'Can I do it today?'" says Osuga. "I usually don't have to chase people, so it's really not that hard."

Khalid Saliem, wearing latex gloves as he peels the leftover plastic from the rim of a recyclable microwave food tray, admits that there are certain perks that make the job more attractive. "If you take the last lunch period," he says, "you get to miss part of cursive. It's kind of fun, too. Gross, but fun."

Chris Jordan's instrumental role in the composting program is emblematic of Lawton's approach to parental involvement. He's a photographer whose primary subject has been the underlying destructiveness of rampant American consumerism; the school welcomed his experience, skill and a passion for conservation - as it did other parents who played roles in the creation of the Eco Village model.

"At Lawton we've really seen firsthand what's possible when you encourage parents to share their talents," Hubbard says.

Adults are people, too

Students working on Eco Village often had to deal with complicated concepts that required special expertise. Enter parents Ronda King and Toni Luchessa, who volunteered their respective services as an architect and artist/designer.

King relished the opportunity to work with the students' creativity. She points out an early sketch of the Village's bus shelter and marvels at the clarity of the architectural idea behind it. "Not only is the idea clear," she says, "but you can see the emotion that went into it. That's pretty rare when you're dealing with adults."

The students' creativity and idealistic attitude toward the environment were initially sparked by a trip to IslandWood, a visionary outdoor educational facility on Bainbridge Island that uses the environment as a classroom while integrating technology, science and the arts.

With Eco Village, the students hope to offer an IslandWood-like experience to kids within the city, but they've also taken the idea a step further by planning it as a permanent residential neighborhood. This required research into many areas including architecture, water/waste management, sustainable/renewable energy sources, recyclable building materials, Native American construction methods and social planning.

"It was all a very communal," says fifth-grade teacher Mike Howard. "All three fourth- and fifth-grade classes worked together. Different groups concentrated on different aspects, but everyone had a hand in everything."

The final product exemplifies its communal construction. There are no official property lines drawn in the Eco Village, and every building is designed to offer a modicum of privacy but never at the cost of communal space.

The marked absence of cars (or as fifth-grader Sophia Nicholson Keener calls them, "pollution machines") exemplifies students' priorities on human and environmental concerns. This puts a smile on Howard's face; he has not owned a car since 1984 for similar reasons.

The project gets kids thinking of an alternative future for themselves, Howard says. It's "sort of utopian," but it's not so far out that it couldn't potentially be practical. "You just have to have people with vision."

But the students have combined that vision with a healthy does of pragmatism.

"Making the village is like writing an essay report," says fourth-grader Jack Taylor. "You have to figure out how you're going to do it before you make your rough draft. Then you have to work out all the bugs before you finish the final.

"I guess it's the same for pretty much everything."

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