Before Eve Drueke was coordinator of the county’s Green Schools Program, she was a beneficiary of it.
Drueke, who succeeded Kim Petzing as coordinator of the program last month after Petzing was promoted to the position of Madison County’s sustainability coordinator, began her career as a teacher in the Edwardsville School District. While teaching fifth grade at Columbus Elementary School, Drueke was the point person for the school’s participation in the program.
That experience gives her a unique perspective as she works to advance a program that has blossomed over the past two decades. Now a staple of the county’s Planning and Development Department, the program was originally meant to be short-lived.
“It was really just to start to get schools recycling,” Drueke said. “I think that was around the time where Madison County started its own curbside pickup and expanded its own recycling program to private residents, so a position was created (within the county). Really, the position was only to be for three years. It was a three-year program to help facilitate schools’ recycling programs.”
Making a difference
Today, the program focuses on creating green, healthy spaces and opportunities in and around schools, using resources sustainably and involving children, teachers and other staff in greening their schools. The program, funded by tipping fees collected at county landfills, utilizes recycling competitions, item collections and grant funding for schools to pursue environmentally friendly projects as ways to teach youths about sustainability.
In some ways the program’s impact isn’t quantifiable, but in others the results are hard to overlook. In conjunction with the program, Drueke said schools last year collected 14,138 pairs of shoes to donate to the Shoeman Water Project, which sells the shoes to purchase hand pumps, water filtration devices and wells in parts of the world where access to fresh water is limited, and gathered 1,276 pounds of aluminum can tab tops. The tab tops were cashed in through Highland Recycling and Shredding, for money that goes directly to the school or to a charity of the school’s choosing.
One of the program’s newest endeavors is the Green Seed Grant Program. The program makes roughly $32,000 in grants available to schools to undertake green-related projects. Grant applications can be for whatever a school identifies as being beneficial, from stormwater issues to solid waste to energy efficiency.
Last year, Highland Elementary received a grant for a rain garden for native plants that do well in heavy water, Drueke said, just one of the innovative projects that has Drueke enthusiastic for the program’s future.
“Teachers have been applying for some really exciting things — from native planting rain gardens to water bottle refilling stations to cut down on the amount of plastic disposable water bottles,” Drueke said. “So I think it’s really starting to catch on, some good sustainability initiatives. And those are all teacher-driven — the sky’s the limit. They can apply for anything under that grant for anything that they think would help reduce their school’s carbon footprint or move beyond basic recycling.”
In January, grants for five projects were approved by the county board in the amount of $8,301. Among those were four grants applied for by Alton schools — East Elementary, North Elementary, Alton Middle School and the Alton Motivational Achievement Center. Three of the schools used part of the funds for stormwater and landscaping projects, and all four put some of the money toward education initiatives.
“Our teachers instill within students a sense of environmental citizenship through our Green Schools Program,” Kristie Baumgartner, assistant superintendent with the Alton School District, said. “Our students learn at a very early age how to reduce their ecological footprint while increasing sustainable options even within their very own schools and homes.”
“Changing school culture”
Along with the environmental grants, shoe and tab top collections, the program also promotes a number of other initiatives. Among those are marker recycling facilitated by Crayola; plastic film recycling; key recycling through the Lions Club of Illinois; Cell Phones for Soldiers; TerraCycle for hard-to-recycle waste; and a used eyeglass collection. Competitions, including a rain barrel design competition and a challenge to design a bookmark promoting clean air, also fall under the Green Schools Program umbrella.
It’s an umbrella Drueke has now seen from both sides. Despite her new role, she said she is a “teacher at heart,” a perspective that allows her view the program from different lenses.
“From having been a teacher for seven years, I can confidently say that there is no educational professional out there — teacher, principal, assistant — who is not already probably totally overtasked,” Drueke said. “It was easy for me to feel overwhelmed with extra things to do as a teacher, so having been a busy teacher, I think that definitely puts me at an advantage to understand what will help them, what they do and don’t have time to do. I think a lot of us don’t understand how busy teachers are. So, it’s really very personally satisfying to be able to encourage their participation in the program and feel like I know how to listen to what they need and know how to make their jobs easier. And maybe that means I’m making the flier for them to announce the fact that there’s a new shoe collection — if it saves them 10 minutes, then those are 10 precious minutes they can spend on something else.
“The other side of it, too, is I can see a really long arc for what this does for our students and for our community. One of the initiatives that we have is Trashformations. That program is a competition; it’s for prize money and recognition at an end-of-the-year ceremony, and it’s open to all ages. What it is is a challenge to get students to use materials that would otherwise be put in the trash or recycled, and turn it into some sort of product or innovation that someone else can use. I think that this program, by doing things like that, by creative problem-solving, is helping prompt students to think about global problem-solving.
“With the way that this program is going now, what we’re starting to see is not so much teacher-driven, but this is asking students to take the idea of sustainability — saving resources, thinking about what we put into landfills — they’re taking that into their homes, they’re talking about it with their parents. And then it’s changing school culture ... I think there’s a good tie-in to everyone’s quality of life here.”
As she settles in, Drueke said she’s “not planning any sweeping changes” of the program in the near future. She identified larger concepts like food sustainability and healthy food access and education as being things she sees on the horizon, but said she will take most of her cues from the people who know best — the teachers, of course.
“I think it’s going to be driven by what teachers are asking for. If I want people to participate, I need to listen to them rather than tell them what it is we’re going to do,” Drueke said. “So, that’s going to be a really important goal is listening to teachers, listening to schools, listening to the community about what’s important rather than handing down directives on what it is they’re going to do.”