Villa Victoria Academy, Ewing, recently received “Certified Wildlife Habitat” recognition by the National Wildlife Federation. The habitat was created by the school’s environmental science class. Photo courtesy of Colleen White
Villa Victoria Academy, Ewing, recently received “Certified Wildlife Habitat” recognition by the National Wildlife Federation. The habitat was created by the school’s environmental science class. Photo courtesy of Colleen White

By Rose O’Connor | Correspondent

Mindful of the challenge to protect the earth, “our common home,” posed by Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si’,” Catholic schools continue to integrate positive environmental initiatives while teaching students about the call to be good stewards of creation.

In this encyclical, Pope Francis stresses that when human beings damage the environment, they are damaging relationships with other people, especially the poor and those of future generations who depend on this generation to be responsible for all of God’s gifts.

Responsible action takes a variety of forms in schools in the Diocese of Trenton.

“One of the many goals St. Ann School has been focusing on lately is decreasing its environmental impact. Based on Pope Francis’ encyclical ‘Laudato Sí,’ the school has undertaken several projects in line with the Vatican’s environmental agenda,” explained Alessandra Fallow, director of admissions and marketing for the Lawrenceville school.

Fallow shared that, in the past few months, to create energy efficiency, St. Ann School has installed solar panels on the roof of its building, replaced the main boiler with a more energy efficient one for heat, and switched all light fixtures in the school to more energy efficient LED lights.

“Many other projects are on the list of the administration, such as relying more on online communication and digital learning to reduce the waste of paper, and participating in a school-wide recycling program in partnership with St. Ann’s Parish,” she added.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, Asbury Park, has found an innovative way to not only clean up litter, but also to learn firsthand the impact littering causes on the environment and animal habitats.

“At Mt. Carmel, we are geo-tagging the litter that we have found to track where it has been and where it may end up,” principal Theresa Craig explained. “We also turned a previously underutilized space on campus into an urban garden space.”

Reverence for Nature

Many schools have created spaces to grow plants, fruits and vegetables. Students in both the Upper and Lower School of Trenton Catholic Academy have been utilizing a greenhouse that was built on the Hamilton school campus this past September.

“The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Recently, some of the staff members were treated to a salad, grown entirely by the Growing Earth Club,” said Rebecca Reed, upper school biology teacher, noting there have been “conversations regarding expanding the outside growing and planting area for the students in both the Lower and Upper Schools.”

Projects that will utilize the greenhouse will be completed on “Celebrate Our Community Day” during Catholic Schools Week by students in the Lower School.

Fellow Mercer County school St. Gregory the Great Academy, Hamilton Square, has a community garden built by a graduate for his Boy Scout Eagle Project. “The produce from the garden is used to supply fresh produce for those in need via our parish cohort partnership with the St. Raphael - Holy Angels Food Pantry.  The arden will also be used by St. Gregory the Great Academy for educational purposes involving soil conservation and gardening,” said Susan Scibilia, director of communications.

“Parishioner Priscilla Hayes, leader of our parish Green Team, formed the St. Gregory the Great Academy Garden Club. Academy students help tend the gardens and harvest the crops,” she added.

St. Benedict School, Holmdel, “is now offering students an outdoor space dedicated to promoting environmental engagement. Currently fenced on two sides with a slightly sloping grade, the land will be improved to provide amphitheater-style seating for instruction, designated spaces for vegetable, herb, pollinator, milkweed, and meditation gardens, elevated planting boxes, a pond, habitats for birds and wildlife, a composter, rain barrels, natural play spaces, and walking paths,” explained Lori Ulrich, director of marketing and event management.

“Additionally, the space will include art extensions such as a music wall and outdoor art installations. The Outdoor Learning Center will provide the necessary resources for teachers and students to tackle their investigations and challenges as citizen scientists in an authentic learning environment,” Ulrich shared.

Creating an authentic learning environment was important to Villa Victoria Academy, Ewing, which recently received “Certified Wildlife Habitat” recognition by the National Wildlife Federation.

The habitat was created by the environmental science class last year and gave the girls “a hands-on opportunity to study soil samples and water samples,” shared Colleen White, director of admissions.

As stated on the National Wildlife Federation website, “These wildlife habitats become places where students not only learn about wildlife species and ecosystems, but also outdoor classrooms where they hone their academic skills and nurture their innate curiosity and creativity.”

The project was spearheaded last year by teacher Jennifer Spivey, who works with her classes this year to maintain the ecosystems.

“The girls have stated that it drew them closer and deeper to parts of the environment that they were not aware of, as well as giving them the opportunity to see how with every action there is a reaction within each environment. From there, they can walk away with a strong understanding of how they, as individuals, can impact their world. … It is a rewarding course for me to teach on so many levels, but especially because it allows them to see the beauty that God has created and know they are the stewards who will be taking care of it because they know how,” Spivey acknowledged.

Creatures Great and Small

Jamie Dunn, a student in Our Lady of Good Counsel School, Moorestown, recently won a $500 scholarship from the Lesniak Institute for American Leadership. Based at Kean University, the institute “develops the next generation of American leaders” and partners with students and schools from across the nation.

 The essay contest was designed to “inspire students to use their writing skills to promote the need to protect animals from cruelty and to save animals from extinction.” Dunn’s award-winning essay advocated for animal welfare. 

“We are all called to be stewards of God’s creation, and we have an obligation to take care of the animals,” said Kathleen Nestor, moderator of the Animal Awareness Club in St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, and volunteer with the Associated Human Society.

The club, which meets during the school’s activity period, has held bake sales and food and blanket drives for the Monmouth County SPCA, the Associated Humane Society and local rescue organizations.

One of Nestor’s favorite activities is a trip the Popcorn Park Zoo, Forked River, which describes itself as “a sanctuary for animals that faced desperate circumstances and/or death,” and is an opportunity for students to visit animals in a non-typical zoo setting.

Building Global Understanding

Teachers who bring their own real-life experiences to the classroom are shedding much-needed light on global issues and problems.

Students in Holy Cross, Rumson, were inspired to raise funds for the Catholic Medical Mission Board to build a school in Mwanza, in the Imela district of Tanzania, by their teacher, Maryjane Gallo, who was once a volunteer with the group.

Her experiences as an educator in Africa in 2011 prompt much of their socially conscious reading, including “A Long Walk to Water” by Linda Sue Park, which tells the story of Nya, who traveled two hours from home to fetch clean drinking water.

The students were inspired to do more and created a cardboard arcade, “which requires each group of two to create an arcade game entirely out of recycled materials. Every class in the school is invited to play the games on Jan. 24. Games are $.50 each or unlimited play for $5.00. The sixth-grade math classes are researching fundraising goals based on the probability of the games being played, and then tallying the earnings,” explained Teresa Makin, public relations coordinator.

Through donations such as these, construction has begun on the school in Africa.

“We already have the structure, the main room and the bathroom built,” Gallo shared. “All are welcome. This is an opportunity for orphans and the vulnerable and for those who would not have the chance to go to school to receive an education.”