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Student Activists Win Portland Climate Change Curriculum

By Alan Singer | June 20, 2019 | Daily KOS

In 2016, the Portland, Oregon school board unanimously passed a resolution mandating that climate change and climate justice be part of the curriculum in all district schools. The resolution called for curriculum that was “participatory, imaginative, and respectful of students’ and teachers’ creativity and eagerness to be part of addressing global problems” and committed the district to promoting “Climate literacy” to prepare its students to be effective “members of their communities and citizens of the world.”

The initial push for the resolution came from Bill Bigelow and Tim Swinehart. Bigelow was a former Portland public school social studies teacher active with the progressive education magazine Rethinking Schools and the Zinn Education Project. He and Swinehart helped write a book, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, and worked with the environmental group 350 PDX to influence how schools teach about climate change.

Unfortunately, after approving the original resolution, the Portland Public Schools did little to implement it. They even informed Swinehart that, “‘peripheral’ work like climate justice education would need to be put on hold.”

Part of the problem was that the Portland resolution drew the attention of right wing groups like the Heartland Institute. Heartland charged that the Portland school district was “demanding that their unshakable faith in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming be the only thing taught in school.” Its director of communications said the resolution “teaches kids in Portland public schools the falsehood that the science is settled.”

In March 2019, hundreds of Portland students joined global protests about the failure of our society to address the threat of climate change and global warming. They walked out of classes and walked two miles to the Portland Public Schools district office where hundreds of students sat down in the parking lot to demand that the school district deliver the curriculum it had promised.

In May, fifty of the students packed into the Portland school board meeting to press their case. Sriya Chinnam, a high school junior and member of the Portland Youth Climate Council, testified, “We are facing a crisis. There’s no scientific debate when we talk about global warming. PPS understands climate change but does not recognize that this is a climate crisis. Climate education is more than climate change. This is not just a science issue. This is about our lives. This is a social justice issue.” In response to student protests, district officials met with students and finally allocated $200,000 to implement a climate change – climate justice curriculum.

Twenty-six states help develop Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) that were initially distributed in 2013. They are heavy on scientific process. Rather than taking a position on the human causes of climate change, the standards, call on high school students to “Analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth’s systems.” Only twenty states and the District of Columbia adopted the standards, although some, like New York, base their state standards on NGSS. Oregon, which wasn’t teaching climate science, is one of the states that was supposedly already followed the NGSS.

Meanwhile the Trump administration escalates its war on science. It is planning to create a National Security Council working group of “scientists” on the federal payroll to challenge the overwhelming scientific consensus that the burning of fossil fuels is harming the planet. Apparently President Trump is upset that the National Climate Assessment, issued by the federal government last November, provided additional evidence of the dire consequences of human caused climate change. Covfefe!

At the Portland school board hearings one high school sophomore made the case for climate change action succinctly and clearly. Sophia England told school board members and district officials, “It’s really scary to know the clock is ticking.”  Maybe Donald Trump can’t tell climate time?

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