Spend any time at Rutland City Public Schools’ Allen Street Campus, and you’ll learn a thing or two about recycling and composting.
This school year, students have undertaken a school-wide waste reduction project aimed at shrinking the building’s contribution to the waste stream.
At the end of every school day, a group of five or so students — unofficially dubbed the “trash ambassadors” — collect receptacles from classrooms and sort the trash, recyclables and organic waste as needed. Along the way, they audit the school’s daily progress and report back how each classroom is doing.
According to special educator Cal Pomeroy, who’s spearheading the project, the campus has reduced its trash output by 90% since early September — going from about 20 bags of trash per day to one.
She added that recycling output for the campus — which houses a total of 60 faculty, staff and students — has doubled and compost production has quadrupled.
“It’s important to me that I teach my students that our impact on the environment is substantial,” she said.
In preparation for the project, Pomeroy shared videos and other resources with students that illustrated the environmental impacts of waste and consumption.
She also enlisted help from the Rutland County Solid Waste District, which sent a representative to educate the trash ambassadors about recycling. The ambassadors, in turn, have kept their fellow classmates updated on what can and can’t be recycled.
“It’s made this huge school-wide difference,” Pomeroy said.
Scott Corbett, director of the Allen Street Campus, said his “mind was blown” by the rapid reduction in waste at the school.
“I think it was interesting to see how fast the impact was — especially when the students in here realized how much reduction there was,” he said, adding that going through the process of sorting and separating materials gave students a visualization of just how much waste ends up in landfills.
More than helping the environment, though, the project is aligned with nontraditional educational model at the campus.
Allen Street Campus — formerly known as the Success School — uses trauma-informed therapeutic interventions to foster social-emotional development for students in grades 5-12.
The result is a collaborative, restorative space outside the traditional classroom setting where experiential learning opportunities help kids to thrive.
“The academics are really easily embedded,” said Pomeroy.
The ambassadors were tasked with emailing communications and making presentations about the project to each classroom, giving them the opportunity to practice grammar, language mechanics and public speaking.
Students are also applying math skills by weighing the trash and helping to measure the site of a greenhouse being built on campus, where compost created by the waste project will eventually be used.
“There’s a lot of growth. We’ve made a lot of mistakes, but that’s the best way that some of these students learn,” Pomeroy said. “It would be really easy for me to say, ‘Follow these 20 steps. This is exactly how we do it,’ but when they’re emotionally invested right in the process of making a mistake and making it better, it really makes a huge difference.”
Pomeroy said students were initially resistant to the project but, after six weeks, they have bought in to it and are making informed decisions about their personal consumption and waste habits.
“We come at this from an emotional standpoint — that what we’re really trying to do, honestly, is really make the world a better place for humans and for animals,” she said.
“It is hard work. It makes you sweat,” said ninth-grader Corbin Curry.
Curry said when classes mess up and put items in the wrong bins, he’s there to set them straight.
“I feel like they just need more learning,” he said.
Eleventh-grader Kevin Smith, who was one of the biggest naysayers, according to Pomeroy, is now de facto project manager.
Pomeroy credited Smith with developing a process for more efficiently collecting materials at the end of each day.
Smith said his views changed after he learned more about the environmental impacts of waste and litter, such as viewing videos of marine life caught in plastic and learning about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a collection of debris twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean.
Seeing the amount of waste generated each day at the Allen Street Campus also helped.
“It makes it a lot better when there’s less (trash),” he said.
Students are also extending their awareness beyond the campus.
Counselor Naomi Ross, said she and seventh-grader Wyatt Perkins regularly pick up trash on their walks through the Rutland Regional Medical Center campus across the street.
“Honestly, it’s a little addicting,” she said.
But expansion is the goal.
Corbett described plans to take the project to other RCPS buildings beginning in spring.
Smith is on board.
“There’s going to be, eventually, no trash cans in every classroom and then after that we’re going to go to some of the schools and help them,” he said.
Corbett said that as the project expands throughout the district, students will see waste generation on a larger scale, which will open up valuable opportunities for reflection as they consider how they can have an even greater impact.
“They’re not only just thinking about their school anymore or themselves, they’re thinking about institutions and organizations. And that’s where the change happens,” he said.