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EARTHWATCH : Taking Root : The seeds of environmentalism sown last spring have borne fruit at Ventura High School.


It's December and Earth Year, or Earth Day, whatever, is behind us. Or is it? Did anything stick?

I checked this out at Ventura High School. Lo and behold, "the environment" is all over the place--in the curriculum, in extracurricular activities, aboveground, underground, and stretching from Arroyo Verde Park in Ventura to Exposition Park in Los Angeles.

It seems Earth Day did some good. Functioning as sort of a spring rain last April, it spurred the growth of "seeds" planted by faculty and students in preceding years. As a result, various kinds of environmentalism have become socially and academically established, according to Ventura High teacher Jim Sergent, a United States Marine Corps reservist.

As debate coach and head of the social studies department, he has pointed his students toward growth and water issues.

"When you have all the information, you act. If you don't, you're just a critic. You can have an influence on things."

There's peer pressure on kids not to litter, he noted, now that keeping tidy surroundings is considered "environmental" and part of the recycling trend.

My Ventura city recycling friends who set up the school's program in conjunction with the student government have told me this is almost always the case after the recycling habit hits a school.

April's Earth Day Fair, which attracted more than 100 student-staged environmental exhibits, has become an annual event. The Discovery Club is renovating a public park with another hundred volunteers. And biology classes such as Chuck Enterline's are into risk management studies.

A Green Club (not affiliated with the political party) has formed. "Kids care. They don't want to write letters. They want to do something hands-on," says Mitra Rahnema, the organizer. (An initial idea to get Styrofoam out of the school faltered on the real-world problem of the water shortage--a dish washing problem.)

The environment was the arena for a lively battle in the school's weekly but unofficial student newspaper, the Reality Press. Eco-moderates and eco-radicals have been exchanging some stylish and literate blows in what editor Joseph (Bear) Wilner drolly characterized as "their figuring out the right way to proceed." About 20% of the articles submitted to him are environmentally oriented.

"It's reached critical mass," said Wilner. "It's going somewhere. They've got the idea now. Before, they didn't have the confidence."

The aboveground Cougar Press, the school's official student monthly, has not been unaffected by this ferment. Kristin Unterberger, leader of the Discovery Club (the "veteran" eco-group) has become editor and has established a regular reporting beat for environmental matters.

In a mini-version of The Times poll, Unterberger conducted a survey. She discovered that students may be concerned about environmental issues, but they don't know what to do. "I was surprised to find apathy , considering the worry," she said.

The same problem was echoed in a comment from Green Club leader Rahnema. "I get a lot of insults--'You're just an environmental person,' " she said. "It's trendy, you see people with T-shirts, but people don't always act on it."

One solution to the dilemma may be found in chemistry teacher Louise Komp's Chemistry in the Community class. Designed for all students, not just those in the math and science track, it seems to be a rather daring foray into what Komp calls "our need to know."

One class assignment has students follow a fictional news article about the local fish population dying off. The class is required to do the chemical testing on liquids provided by the teacher (representing the water in which the fish died), just like the federal Environmental Protection Agency does. They will discover a certain amount of toxic metals. They will then research the companies in the area that make these substances and hold a town meeting to determine who is responsible for the cleanup.

She calls this study unit "Troubling Waters." Indeed. The course is the same as one recently introduced statewide in Colorado.

Komp, a nationally recognized environmental educator, last week took a group of students on a National Science Foundation field trip. They went to L.A. County's Imax Theater to see "Blue Planet."

Student Crystal Arbaugh described it as a "spectacular and also alarming" view of environmental destruction as viewed from space. "People should see what we're doing to our home," she said.

Fellow student Aaron Jue recommends a family trip to see the film of "man's self-destruction."

When I saw the film myself, and then got to thinking about what I found going on at Ventura High School, I remembered Bear Wilner's optimism. "It's reached critical mass. but it's going somewhere now. They've got the idea."

Please send comments and suggestions or possible column ideas to Earthwatch, Ventura County Life, 5200 Valentine Road, Ventura 93003 .


"Blue Planet," an Imax Theater presentation sponsored by Lockheed and NASA, plays at 10 a.m., noon, 2, 6 and 8 p.m. daily. The theater is at Exposition Park near the Los Angeles Coliseum. For more information, call (213) 744-2015.

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