Three students wearing masks and holding trashbags
Students at Lincoln Southeast High School gather for their April litter clean-up last year. Photo courtesy of Brittany Albin, sustainability coordinator at LPS.

Talking to 5-year-olds about sustainability can sound challenging, but Lincoln Public Schools is aiming to teach its youngest students about greener ways to live. 

The LPS Sustainability Department works with pre-k students to high school seniors. Members inspire students and faculty members to facilitate programs and events that provide opportunities for sustainable learning and development. 

“We foster the next generation of environmental stewards,” said Britney Albin, sustainability coordinator for LPS.

The sustainability department in LPS is small, so they cannot reach out to every student. Instead, Albin asks LPS schools to nominate a sustainability champion to lead the environmental efforts and events. 

Most of the sustainability champions run “Green Teams” in their schools. These teams can be several different things. Some are recycling groups, others are garden and nature clubs. Some have five kids, while some involve the entire school. 

The staff and students who put on their own events look to Albin for the tools to do so. The sustainability department is the contact for sharing information and getting resources.  

“We connect the people who are interested in doing these things with the resources and experts,” Albin said. 

One of the biggest projects within LPS is the waste diversion program. LPS typically recycles 1.2 million pounds every year. Last year they were able to have a 54% waste diversion rate, meaning less than half of the garbage ended up in a landfill, according to Albin. This is due to their extensive recycling and composting programs. 

Albin encourages teachers to introduce sustainability into their curriculum as much as possible. This is the best way to inspire ecological responsibility in the younger generations, she said. 

LPS kindergartners learn about composting and recycling during their garbology unit– the study of garbage and waste management. Some schools, like Beattie Elementary School, have built outdoor classrooms, so kids can be taught outside. 

Third graders at Beattie learn about environmental health and how pollution can cause sickness and disease while the fourth graders learn about the importance of preserving Nebraska prairie land. 

Lee Dryer, third-grade teacher and sustainability champion for Beattie Elementary, agreed with Albin and said it’s best to start teaching environmental responsibility when children are young.

“The younger they are, the greater impact you’ll have on them,” he said. 

Dryer has taught at Beattie for 22 years, but it wasn’t until 2002 that the school started its sustainability efforts. It began by recycling paper and cans, which is a project now led by a group of fourth and fifth graders. 

Beattie’s biggest sustainability program is its community garden. Dryer has been the garden’s coordinator for five years. The garden allows students to have hands-on, real-world experiences in sustainability, he said. 

Students learn how to plant vegetables and maintain nutrient-rich soil. They hold family garden nights, scavenger hunts and other events that involve the community. The garden is mostly run by staff and kids at Beattie and is a place of pride for the school.

“It’s good for the kids to have something to be proud of,” Dryer said about the garden. 

Community gardens are common in LPS. Mickle Middle School started a garden in 2010 with Lincoln Community Crops. In 2018, Katie Hammond, seventh and eighth-grade science teacher at Mickle, started a garden club. 

The club spearheaded the growth of the garden, which is now 1,225 square feet and grows a variety of edible plants, from pumpkins and beans to carrots and popcorn. The vegetables and food they grow in the garden is given out to Mickle students in need. Like Beattie, Mickle students and staff are very supportive and inspired by the work in the garden.

“I would say the kids are very proud of it and take responsibility for it,” Hammond said. 

The garden is the perfect learning experience for the kids because it combines sustainability with biology. Students are able to learn where food comes from and how to help it grow.

“We can teach them about science hands-on and also just life in general,” Hammond said. 

Hammond is also responsible for leading the school’s recycling program, which recycled 2,161 pounds, including 50 pounds of Crayola markers, in 2019. By using the U.S. Green Building Council’s Arc for Schools Pilot, Hammond calculated that Mickel decreased its greenhouse gas emissions by about 150 metric tons and water usage by about 500 kgal from June 2018 to August 2019. 

Mickle Middle School’s Arc was given the United States Department of Education Green Ribbon Award in 2020 because of its efforts toward sustainability. 

It is important that schools focus on local issues of sustainability, Albin said. While beach clean-ups are important and lots of kids think saving the turtles is imperative, these are not relevant issues for children growing up in Nebraska. So, on top of many students’ work and passion for ocean clean-up and conservation, Albin tries to bring their attention to local issues and organizations.

“We ask, how do we connect them to issues and solutions right here in Nebraska?” she said. 

Albin tries to involve local experts and organizations who can spread learning information on sustainability. This includes non-profits, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln environmental studies program and state organizations like Nebraska Games and Parks. 

Albin created a monthly sustainability newsletter to share ideas for environmental projects with schools and inspires teachers to reach out for resources.

“I want people to know that I am there as a resource if they want to do a project,” she said. 

Albin uses a point system to reward LPS schools for completing sustainability activities. If a school earns enough points, it can win funding grants that can go towards other resources or events. Mickle Middle School has won over $500 for its efforts over the past few years, according to Hammond.

LPS has always been sustainability-minded. In 1993, it implemented energy-efficient systems in its buildings and kept track of air and water quality. By the mid-1990s, the district already had a part-time recycling coordinator.

In 2015, the district hired Albin as the sustainability coordinator to pull everyone together and inspire environmental responsibility. Six years later, they added an assistant to help Albin with the projects.

LPS has over 70 buildings, and it is always looking for ways to make its business greener.

“Just like any organization, we are looking at how we can minimize our effect on the environment,” Albin said.

Since Albin started her career with LPS, there has been a change of attitude towards sustainability projects. Specifically, she sees more and more students who are inspired and motivated to start something in their school. She said this is due to the global awareness of human effect on climate.

“There is a growing awareness and interest in taking action,” she said.

Schools like Beattie Elementary and Mickle Middle also planned their Earth Day celebrations on April 22. 

I am a senior journalism and French major at the University of Nebraska Lincoln.