J.C. Parks Elementary School has a reputation for its commitment to the environment. Deanna Wheeler, the science teacher, thinks it probably started around 2009 when she was invited on an ice-breaking expedition in the Arctic. Before that, of course, she and her students would do little things here and there for the environment. But after that time in the Arctic, the scope widened for Wheeler.
“We could do more,” she said. “Our actions impact more than Parks and what’s around us. Our impact can be felt all the way up to the Arctic.” When she returned to Maryland, she and her students started to look around them and see beyond.
With the help of grants, volunteers, and a lot of elbow grease, the school grounds now feature wetlands, two meadows, an upland forest, two rain gardens, and an arboretum. The projects have attracted local, state, national and international attention. While he was governor, Martin O’Malley visited the wetland and planted a tree for Green Apple Day. Over the years, the school has received numerous accolades. It has been named a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Ocean Guardian School, a U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School, a Top 10 Eco-School in 2015 through the National Wildlife Foundation, and a few years back, some students spoke at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Convention. From the appearance at the AGU Conference, which brings together Earth and space science enthusiasts from around the world, the students wound up on the Live Science website talking about the Ghost Fleet at Mallows Bay. They also made an appearance on “Good Morning America” and fielded calls from journalists around the globe.
The latest feather in the school’s sustainable cap comes from the Maryland Department of Planning. With a nomination from Sen. Arthur Ellis, J.C. Parks won a 2021 Sustainable Growth Award in the Preservation Conservation category. The school participated in a virtual ceremony earlier this month. The award celebrates the projects at Parks that have transformed the grounds from a monoculture to a self-sustaining wetland.
“Ms. Wheeler is always thinking of ways to promote education in science with our children,” Parks’ Principal Gregory Miller said. “And that’s where it needs to start. Our youngest students must have this as a ‘way of life.’ Thinking about their world as a sustainable place and trying to eliminate practices that are unsustainable.”
Before COVID-19 turned everything on its ear, the J.C. Parks Green Team — a group of 35 students in third, fourth, and fifth grades — sought to embark on a new challenge. They have already pushed a successful Skip a Straw campaign to raise awareness about the wastefulness of single-use straws. In early 2020, students decided that plastic bags had no place being a part of the landscape. Students reported seeing plastic bags snared in tree branches and crumpled on the side of the road.
About two weeks before March 16, 2020, — when Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) first closed to slow the spread of COVID-19 — Parks students submitted drawings to be featured on reusable bags that would be given away to family, friends, and community members. The project, which was funded by community and federal partners, was paused due to the pandemic. Eventually, the 10,000 bags made their way to Wheeler’s classroom complete with student artwork, a hashtag — #bagitcc — and a pledge.
J.C. Parks Green Team Reusable Bag Pledge
On my honor,
I will start using
By reducing the number
of one-time plastic bags
That pollute the ocean
and our environment,
I will make the earth a better place.
I will recycle.
Pick up trash and do other good deeds
My goal is to make a better world for all.
While the Green Team hasn’t officially met in a while due to COVID-19 protocols and other time-related factors — “Everybody is part of the Green Team right now,” Wheeler said — the school is not slowing down on its commitment to the environment. The reusable bags will hopefully show up in Mom & Pop grocery shops and other places like local food pantries to encourage Charles County to “bag it.”
Wheeler will work with students on building a bird and butterfly garden in front of the school near the outdoor murals that show how the J.C. Parks community connects to the Arctic. “Our decisions have greater impacts,” Wheeler tells her students. “Kids understand that we can do good things.”