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New York legislators push for more climate change education in schools

Lehman Alternative Community School teacher Heidi Lux, left, helps student Tre Hoyt set up an experiment during a class on climate change.
Rebecca Redelmeier / WSKG News
Lehman Alternative Community School teacher Heidi Lux, left, helps student Tre Hoyt set up an experiment during a class on climate change.

The Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca buzzed with energy at the beginning of a recent school day. Students milled about, getting off the bus, locking up bikes and saying hello to teachers.

It’s a unique kind of public school for middle and high school students. There’s a graffiti room, a plant hallway, and downstairs in a science lab, there’s a class with one focus: climate change.

Tre Hoyt, an 11th grader, was planning his experiment for the class.

“Basically, I’m going to be seeing how effective sea plants are in reducing the acidity of water,” explained Hoyt as he set up six beakers filled with water under a classroom window. Next, he planned to add plants to a few beakers and measure how the acidity changed.

At LACS, this is a class any high schooler can take, spending the year learning about how climate change affects the natural world and examining possible solutions.

But access to climate change education like this remains unequal across the state, according to advocates and some lawmakers. They say opportunities for students to learn about the topic mostly depends on whether their teachers and schools prioritize it.

Eleventh grader Tre Hoyt prepares his experiment.
Rebecca Redelmeier / WSKG News
Eleventh grader Tre Hoyt prepares his experiment.

Now, a group of lawmakers aim to put an end to that discrepancy through a bill that would create climate education expectations for all public schools, along with resources and training for teachers.

“There is no comprehensive, holistic look at climate education in New York schools,” said state Sen. Andrew Gounardes, who represents part of Brooklyn. He has introduced legislation that aims to create age-appropriate climate change education across all New York public schools.

The bill would require the education commissioner to create climate change learning expectations across several subjects, and include resources for schools and teachers to train on the subject. It would also create the Office of Climate Education and Workforce Development inside the state Education Department.

“All we're doing is saying to the department of education, please create this curriculum and ensure that it gets followed,” said Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, a sponsor of the bill who also represents parts of Brooklyn. “This is what's going to keep our heads above water, literally.”

Similar legislation has already passed in New Jersey and California. Advocates say it’s time for New York to get on board too, especially with children and youth already anxious about climate change.

“Imagine a nine-year-old kid sitting in a classroom somewhere in upstate New York in June of last year when the skies turned orange,” said Don Haas, the director of teacher programming at the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca. “Are they going to be more anxious if they don't know what's going on or if they do know what's going on?”

Students in the LACS climate change class have faced a similar question.

Skye Ink, an 11th grader, has been working on an experiment about the greenhouse effect. She said she’s worried about the realities of climate change. But being in classes like this one has helped her understand its impact and face the future head-on.

“The more that you learn about it, the more that you realize it’s getting really bad,” said Ink. “But also, the more that you learn about it, the more you know, and it’s not like the unknown. Because the unknown is more scary.”