For Beverly Revness and Janice Tarr, the school year that ended Friday was a long, difficult and tumultuous one, but comments from students like 10-year-old Natasha Roje give them hope that it was not all in vain.
"I wonder, if I have children," Natasha told a classroom visitor recently, "if they'll ever get to know about the rain forests, or if they have to see pictures and stuff."
Revness and Tarr, teachers at Kenter Canyon Elementary School in Brentwood, have spent the year raising the environmental consciousness of their fourth- and fifth-graders with a joint project for the two classes.
While many parents, teachers and students will remember the 1988-89 school year as the year of a teachers strike that highlighted the many troubles facing urban public education, others may prefer to find hope in the small-scale triumphs that take place in classrooms such as this one.
Drawing from a range of public and private resources, Revness and Tarr assembled a year-long environmental awareness project for their classes which will be entered in a federal competition sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency. The program, drawing hundreds of applicants a year, recognizes 10 precollegiate projects around the nation for outstanding service to the environment. Winning entrants are honored with a three-day trip to Washington.
Together, the Kenter Canyon teachers fashioned a year-long curriculum centered on what scientists say is one of the most serious threats to the world's environment: the destruction of the globe's tropical rain forests.
Back in September, most of the children would have been unable to even locate such forests on a map. Now, many show a remarkable grasp of some of the complex issues at stake.
In one recent class, for example, they talked about how some American fast-food chains contribute to deforestation by obtaining their beef from cattle raised cheaply on cleared tropical land in South America and Indochina. At one point, some of the students announced that they would boycott the chains that did so. On other occasions, the students have written the heads of the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. Commerce and Agriculture departments to urge a halt to policies that encourage economic exploitation of such lands.
Students Bused In
The Kenter students, despite the school's location in affluent Brentwood, are relatively representative of the Los Angeles school district. About one-third of the 500 children are bused in from overcrowded inner-city areas. The student body is about two-thirds white, 21% Latino, 8% Asian-American and 7% black. Slightly more than one-sixth of the students have been designated to have limited English proficiency.
Spoken to individually, the children in Revness and Tarr's classes are eager to explain what they have learned in lessons throughout the year.
"They're cutting down all the rain forest trees and they're burning them," says 9-year-old Dana Horstein. Citing a makeshift textbook of environmentalist publications assembled by her teachers, she says rain forests are being destroyed in the tropics at the rate of 50 acres per minute.
Environmentalists caution that at the current rate of use, such forests will be completely cut down by 2050, at devastating cost. Up to half the life forms on Earth live in the affected regions, including key sources for many drugs, such as those used to combat childhood leukemia. Scientists also caution that burning the trees amounts to a double-barreled contribution to global warming--the so-called "greenhouse effect." Combustion adds pollutants and carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, while removal of trees decreases the planet's ability to absorb the gas, believed to be the key factor in trapping the sun's heat in the atmosphere.
Developers clear the forests for lumber, cattle-grazing land and commercial development.
"By cutting down the trees it's going to make it hotter . . . and it'll be all gone and it'll be really hot," Dana adds.
Rene Ramirez, 9, says: "I don't know, when they're cutting down the trees, if they're thinking."
"I think they should . . . be more careful about it," adds Maiko Morishita, 10. "If they cut down the rain forest and burn it they're making pollution."
"What I'm looking for when I'm teaching this course is to make these kids become trustees of the environment," says Revness, 60. A 25-year supporter of the Sierra Club and member of Greenpeace, the Audubon Society and World Wildlife Fund, Revness initiated the Kenter project and is a three-time recipient of a California teaching award for environmental awareness.