Instructors at Jefferson Community School teach students about the impact of global warming
On an early December morning, 4th- and 5th-grade students in room 322 at Jefferson Community School played a game called “polar explorer.”
One child, Estefania, pretended to examine the classroom's so-called cold region as the “polar explorer.” Others pretended to be arctic foxes, tundra wolves, caribou and musk ox, among others. They were learning about global warming. Jefferson teachers created the lessons that they integrate into the regular curriculum as part of a partnership with internationally renowned environmentalist/explorer Will Steger, a Minnesotan.
Steger is famous for his 3,471-mile dogsled International Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1988.
Jefferson Community School Principal Ray Aponte said the school's teachers are passionate about their environmental focus. “I don't think there's any other issue,” he said. “It's in every room. Every teacher is teaching kids about global warming.”
The kindergarten-8th-grade school is located in the heart of Uptown on Hennepin Avenue. The school's building was constructed in 1923 to serve as central headquarters for Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS).
The school is known for its welcoming atmosphere and hardworking staff that reaches out to a bilingual student body. Jefferson has a core of active parents and is a place where Latino families connect.
Walls showcase students' hopes and dreams that are discussed in the first few weeks of the school year. A striking mural shows Thomas Jefferson, for whom the school is named, along with the story of the Louisiana Purchase. Aponte is also featured in the mural as a youngster who immigrated to the United States from Mexico.
Estefania steps outside the classroom momentarily, giving teacher Hugh Hariss time to explain that the temperature in the region/room has risen two degrees, causing the permafrost on the tundra to melt. It's soft and squishy instead of hard and frozen, he explained.
As a result, arctic foxes and tundra wolves have died. Polar bears and other species are also threatened with extinction. Now, there's little ice for animals and people to hunt on. To symbolize their disappearance, the supposed foxes and wolves and other dying animals huddle in a back corner of the room. “We try to instill some caring about the arctic in children. At the same time, we let them know that global warming is occurring and that it'll affect these animals first and foremost,” said Hariss, who developed the game.
Throughout the school year, teachers talk to students about the heat-trapping greenhouse effect, play games on a website that contains the teachers' lessons and messages from Steger at www.globalwarming101.com, and discuss potential solutions to the problem.
In the spring, Hariss' students will plant trees as one way to combat global warming, said the teacher who is instructing 40 students - possibly the largest group of children in an MPS classroom for that age group.
In another activity called “shrinking lands,” students ponder the room's perimeter and area, which shrivels, while also imagining the equator and north and south poles.
In the scenario, residents of coastal areas migrate inward to escape negative effects of global warming. “Our room was our continent with the ocean surrounding us. As the waters rose, most coastal people had to move inward,” said Harris.
That leads to overcrowding. Education assistant Diane Whipkey instigated the global warming project two years ago. After staff was exposed to Steger's arctic expeditions, scientists' photos taken from outer space and other materials, they were committed to the cause. “The more you know about it, the more you know how important it is,” said Harris.
A bilingual community
Jefferson has 580 students. About 85 percent of students are in poverty. Half of the students are English Language Learners (ELL). Many of the teachers are also bilingual in Spanish and English. Students receive language assistance where they need it.
Parent Karina Vazquez said she appreciates the school's strong Spanish language program. Vazquez moved to Minneapolis from Mexico in '93. When her son Gabriel was in kindergarten, he spoke little Spanish after being in an English-speaking daycare program.
As a 3rd-grader, he's now fluent in Spanish. Vazquez said she's impressed by teachers' abilities to straddle cultures. “I think all of the teachers have what it takes to handle so many nationalities, to understand every kid. That's amazing. I don't think I would be able to do it,” she said.
Vazquez stepped forward to help translate Latino families' sentiments about the school when it was almost shut down a couple years ago in a round of school closings throughout MPS. Although there are mixed reports about why Jefferson was targeted, some have said that numerous changes in transportation boundaries gave the impression that it was unable to retain students.
Vazquez is proof that many families are loyal to Jefferson. She works five hours weekly at the school as a Latino parent liaison, has also served on the leadership team and is the vice president of the PTA.
She drives her son to the school daily from Golden Valley. “He just loves the school, and he thinks the teachers are really cool. It's a really nice environment for him,” she said.
A common goal
PTA President Peter Vitale, who lives nearby in Lowry Hill East, chooses to send his three children to Jefferson partly because it's within walking distance of his home and partly for its diversity. He also admires staff's loyalty. “That's as important to climate as qualifications. You have to be a team. That feeds the environment,” he said.
Vitale is the school's first PTA president. He and some other parents underwent the formal application process to install a member-based PTA at the school last spring. Over the past few years, parent involvement has increased while a PTA is more recognizable and official across all cultures, said Vitale.
Previously, the school had a PSO, which is a more informal parent volunteer group. One ongoing challenge is that the school doesn't have the financial backing that others do.
One neighbor, Uri Neren, who lives only blocks away, said he was inspired by Jefferson students' academic performance. He's helped write grants for the school and a legislative plan to obtain more funding even though he doesn't have children.
“Even with so many budget cuts, they're still doing incredible things,” he said. “For me, it's one of the schools that's making a real difference in the immigrant community.”
“We're united in a common cause. It's about [children's] welfare and learning. That's what we're working for,” said Hariss. “There's just something extra about Jefferson. The kids are helpful and honest. There's a nice feeling. I've never wanted to leave.”
Anna Pratt can be reached at 436-4391 or [email protected].