Schools in Baltimore make clear the Pope’s message for a sustainable environment

Schools around the Archdiocese of Baltimore, like Kermit the Frog, are noting that “being green isn’t easy.”

However, schools in the Baltimore area are doing their best to transform campus landscapes and practices to find ways to embrace Pope Francis’ leadership on a seven-year journey toward “Integral Ecology,” which he described in his encyclical, Laudato Si” announced. : About worrying about our common home.”

The Pope’s seven goals include: responding “to the cry of the earth”; ecological sustainability as well as ecological education and social commitment. School administrators and educators add curriculum and make changes to infrastructure, often driven by the passion of their students.

Iggy DeCourcey, senior at Notre
Dame Preparatory School in Towson,
studies wildlife in the Cromwell Valley
Park in Parkville. (Courtesy of Notre Dame Preparatory School)

Handy at NDP

At Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson, students experience hands-on environmental awareness in an Environmental Sciences Advanced Placement course with a new service-learning component.

In the fall, NDP began offering a course focused on environmental biodiversity loss due to development and pollution. Students work on restoring natural habitats and rivers, looking at everything from invasive species to water quality.

Rusty Kahl, chairman of the NDP science department, said the pope’s mission fits in with the mission of the School Sisters of Our Lady to “educate young women to change the world.”

NDP students combine coursework with a service component, Kahl said, by assisting the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability with fish counts in streams in Cromwell Valley Park.

“We’re trying to teach students how to be advocates,” said Kahl, who also noted that NDP is already involved in garbage collection programs in neighboring green spaces. “The students are enthusiastic about the practical part. The Pope seems very concerned about care for creation. But society doesn’t change overnight and we try to teach our students how to make change happen. We teach them to advocate for change both locally and globally.”

transformation

At Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Essex, Alex Brylske led a project that transformed school and community grounds. He is now leading a campaign to build an outdoor classroom.

Brylske knows the challenges of channeling both environmental awareness and stormwater runoff.

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” said Brylske, who spent 14 years as a student at Mount Carmel and a decade as a teacher and athletic director. “Nature is nature. It takes time.”

Mount Carmel has seen the fruits of environmental change. With grants and guidance from the Gunpowder Valley Conservatory, the school and church created two rain gardens, six retention ponds, and a bay landscape. They also planted 10 native trees as part of a project that began in 2018.

The gardens and ponds help stem runoff and also serve as living environmental classrooms for students. That’s the idea behind Mount Carmel’s recent foray into building an outdoor classroom. Kids can interact with the butterflies, tadpoles and birds, which Brylske said are now regularly drawn to places once derided as potential “mosquito ponds.”

The outdoor classroom is also used by the church as a meditation room.

Brylske grew up by the water in Bowley’s Quarters and knows the benefits of a healthy environment. The avid hiker and sailor said Mount Carmel is a unique place to further the Pope’s mission.

“We’re just a stone’s throw from the Chesapeake Bay,” he said. “Having these things on campus helps get the message across. Being able to use the outdoor space to convey this message is a very important component for our teachers.”

“Free Fridays”

At Baltimore Catholic High School, a Maryland Certified Green School, Colleen Guler is the Green School Club Facilitator and Chair of the Social Studies Department. She has seen the mission to protect the planet at the school in East Baltimore.

“As a Franciscan school, it’s rooted in the school as part of our mission,” Guler said. “It is very important to the students. They all have ideas and I’m just facilitating.”

Students recently took action when Baltimore City stopped creating recycling collections for institutions. As recyclables pile up due to the pandemic, Catholic high school students have found alternative ways to recycle what would otherwise end up in landfills.

Students also visited other schools to present PowerPoint projects on water stewardship. They have fundraised for water projects in Haiti and Africa and installed an outdoor classroom and bioretention pond. Students have also planted laurel grasses and contributed to artificial reefs in the Chesapeake Bay.

They even preach to their elders and produce a newsletter about better environmental practices that goes to parents’ homes.

Tracy Harvey is the newly hired Director of Sustainability at Loyola University Maryland. (Kevin J. Parks/Catholic Review contributors)

Lent is a particularly active time of year when the Green Club hosts Free Fridays. During Lent, students strive to rid their campus of a specific environmental damage each week. The club hosts zero-waste lunches, avoids the use of single-use bottles, limits paper waste and reduces the use of unnatural light.

“I’d like to see us do more like get rid of the plastic bottles in the vending machines,” Gruler said. “The key is teaching people about sustainable environmental practices, and the students are the ones doing that.”

Focus on sustainability

It is also a group effort to advance the Pope’s mission in local colleges. Loyola University Maryland recently unveiled several initiatives promoting Pope Francis’ environmental concerns.

The North Baltimore campus initiated climate protection and energy management plans and built a new green facility, the Miguel B. Fernandez Family Center. The university also sponsors a community-focused farmers’ market and several other environmental education initiatives.

Loyola is pushing to become carbon neutral by 2050 and increase the use of sustainable energy, said Tracy Harvey, the school’s newly hired director of sustainability. Loyola has also launched a pilot program to reduce food and plastic waste.

“There’s a lot to do,” Harvey said. “Fortunately, we already have many champions rallying the campus to the effort. The students here have a great passion for sustainability. We try to take a holistic approach that includes science, research and administration.”

Harvey said the university’s goal is to develop what the Pope called “ecological spirituality.” She noted that Loyola sits on nearly 80 acres and its campus is a certified arboretum.

“There’s a lot of work in progress on campus that students are really excited about,” Harvey said of Loyola, which now offers a sustainability management degree.

Email Gerry Jackson at gjackson@CatholicReview.org

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