ITHACA, NY – For the first time in more than two years – in direct response to the COVID pandemic – the Ithaca City School District School Board meeting was sold out. As information on the school year budget and general updates were shared, it was the presentations made by the student representatives that enlivened the room, the one that had grown accustomed to the emptiness.
In 2015, traces of lead were detected in the water supply at Beverly J. Martin Elementary. With student health a top priority, the district took matters into its own hands by installing water coolers that dispensed fresh drinking water for student use.
At first, the initiative was beneficial. The students had access to a fresh water supply and were not exposed to the deadly proponents of lead-infused water. However, over time, the district recognized the financial and environmental disadvantages of the project, and students were encouraged to conduct research into alternatives to using plastic drink products.
“In fifth grade, one of the scientific standards that we look at is for measuring the world’s salt water versus fresh water,” said Steven Kellerman, a teacher’s aide at Beverly J. Martin – colloquially known as BJM. “We couldn’t find anything entirely relevant about this issue, so we wondered if we could turn this into something that would engage our young people. Something that has been on our minds for a while now is that we are importing plastic to provide fresh drinking water for our students. So we started with the very simple question of ‘is our drinking water at BJM safe?’
Around the time they were asked this question, fifth graders at BJM began studying persuasive writing to learn how their voice could inspire change in their English classrooms. This research inspired the presentations that BJM students shared at the school board meeting held on Tuesday, March 8.
Students Desmond and Henry were the first to present. They were tasked with crafting an argument around why BJM’s plastic water coolers should be replaced with filtered fountains.
“Our school uses 4,800 cups a month,” Desmond and Henry said. “These mugs would stretch six times down our hallways. After being thrown in the trash, these cups end up in our oceans and animals get tangled there. Soon, the waste dumped into the ocean will outweigh the fish in their natural habitat.
The boys continued their argument by mentioning how spending on those single-use plastic cups and jugs could be implemented elsewhere. According to their research, BJM spends around $90 a month on water cups alone, money that could be spent on school supplies.
In the second presentation, students BJM Bassam and Christopher focused their argument on the environmental benefits of filtered water systems. They highlighted the idea that plastic is polluting the oceans, drawing on data that found a dump truck’s worth of trash and plastic is dumped into the ocean every minute. They were clearly amazed by their findings and made an active effort to promote them.
As Bassam and Christopher pointed out, over the past year, BJM has worked closely with Life Science Laboratories to measure lead levels in the district’s water supply. In the most recent study, only one part per billion traces of lead were detected in water. This is considered a healthy level and students aspire to see BJM take action to provide safe drinking water that does not contribute to environmental crises.
In the third and final presentation on the matter, BJM students Jaquetin and AJ attempted to win the sympathy of the board.
“We can put 4,800 cups in 29 bins. Isn’t it crazy,” they said. “There’s over 26 billion pounds of trash polluting our oceans today. It’s absolutely pointless to buy something you use once or twice, like our plastic cups and jugs, just to have it. end up in the trash, go to our oceans and kill marine animals.
At the end of the grade five students’ presentations, facilities committee member and chair of the board of education, Robert Ainslie, addressed their concerns directly, explaining how these changes take time to implement, but don’t are not impossible. He thanked the students for their time and research and promised that the facilities committee would honestly consider their argument.
Steve Manley, executive director of the Ithaca Public Education Initiative, closed the student portion of the evening. As a parent of kindergarten and third graders at Beverley J. Martin, the passion of the fifth graders was not surprising, but inspired him nonetheless. BJM students of all ages have heard about the research conducted by fifth graders and want to see these changes incorporated into their school.
“I want to thank the fifth-graders at BJM for their research, their bravery, and for speaking out about science in power,” Manley said. “If we haven’t heard that enough in the last two years, we got to see that in action tonight from some of our youngsters, which was awesome. From our fifth graders to our twelfth graders, we see advocacy and social reform put into action, so thank you all for making this possible.