At St. Monica Academy, program focuses on environment

A box full of red worms in classrooms at St. Monica Academy in Chicago squirm and wiggle through the rich, black dirt dining on table scraps from kids who drop them in there.

While most teachers would be cross with kids feeding worms in class, it’s not a problem here.

In fact, worm feeding enjoys the distinct blessing of the school principal.

“They feed them scraps from lunch, but it’s not just anything. It’s carrots and other vegetables,” says Principal Ray Coleman. “The worms convert it into nutrients for our plants.”

It’s all part of the innovative green curriculum, called Student Environmental Education and Development Studies, known simply as SEEDS. 

The first of its kind in the Chicago Archdiocese, it became a full pilot program this fall, with the help of the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe.

It worked so well that two years ago, the Chicago Archdiocese designated the school as an academy for the environment.

So, from worm bins to solar panels on the roof, the program focuses intensely on nature through its entire curriculum in subjects that might not seem suitable for such an endeavor.

For instance, history and civics classes look like hard fits for a lesson plan more suited to nature, but there’s always a way, Coleman says.

In social studies, for example, teachers talk about the history of landfills and how laws were passed to protect people against dump sites.

“There are so many connections,” Coleman says. “You might not think there is a connection but it’s there.”

The idea of becoming a green school went back to St. Monica’s formation as an academy. About six years ago, parents and teachers wanted the school to have a teaching focus, so they looked at foreign language, arts and environment as possible contenders.

“The environment looked like a niche we could move into,” Coleman says. 

Teachers tried to come up with curriculum, but realized they needed a little help, Coleman says.

They turned to the Chicago Botanic Garden. The school and the nature organization worked together in order to come up with a lesson plan that would be environmentally relevant in all classes.

“When they wanted to become an environmental academy, they wanted it to be interdisciplinary, so it’s not just one grade level or one class,” says Jennifer Schwarz Ballard, director of the garden's Center for Teaching and Learning. “It’s throughout, so kids have a lifestyle or values shift.”

The program began four years ago, but never reached its goals until this year when all the grades had two projects to complete in a year, which is the foundation of the curriculum."

Now, each grade - kindergarten through eighth - works on two long-term environmental projects per year.

For instance, the fourth grade is tasked with identifying about 60 species of local plants this semester as part of its project. After identifying the plants, kids will continue to monitor them, taking note of when they bud, leaf out and full flower.

To make sure the school is on track, the Chicago Botanic Garden designates one person a week to work at the school.

The academy will be monitored throughout this school year since it’s going to be a model for the Chicago Botanic Garden. The group plans on helping other schools go green with St. Monica as the standard to match, Schwarz Ballard says.

“At this point, we want to make sure it works before we take it out to other schools,” Schwarz Ballard says. “Ideally, we’d like this to be a model for others.”