Here at the Environmental Finance Center, our key role is to increase the capacity of other organizations to address the financial aspects of environmental protection and service delivery. The majority of our Center’s work focuses on providing technical training and resources and direct assistance to communities to address financial and managerial challenges of providing environmental services. We take pride in building relationships with diverse stakeholders and establishing rapport with organizations that have environmental, but not necessarily financial, interests and expertise.

Schools are one group with which the EFC is striving to work more closely, specifically to engage teachers and students in the exploration of environmental issues, water and energy conservation strategies and environmental finance. Over the past year, I worked with the EFC as an AmeriCorps service member through the Conservation Trust for North Carolina, to develop, coordinate, and launch the ‘Literacy in Environment and Finance’ (LEAF) project. Through my year-long service term, I partnered with teachers to build resources that incorporate environmental finance topics into curricula, taught in the classroom in Triangle-area schools, and helped to implement the ‘Sustainability, Energy, and Education Development’ (SEED) grant competition in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School district.

Through this program, the EFC has developed great relationships with folks in the education community, helped high school students win more than $31,250 in grants, and engaged more than 400 students and community members in environmental finance lessons. But in my view, perhaps the biggest success of the LEAF pilot project has been developing environmental projects with student teams. Through regular lunch-time meetings, I was able to help kids think through project feasibility, how to identify and pursue outside funding resources, connect with varied stakeholders, pinpoint difficulties and risks, and eventually implement projects. Below are three student projects we’d like to highlight and give a shout out to the teachers and young leaders working hard to make them happen:

Carrboro High School Community Garden

The Eco-Action Club (EAC) oversees a community garden at Carrboro High School that includes three raised garden beds, one rain barrel, four in-ground vegetable beds, a small fruit orchard, and a compact strawberry patch. Student leaders organize and coordinate weekly workdays in the garden to achieve their goals of cultivating healthy food and providing an educational and safe social space for Carrboro HS students and community members. On such workdays, about twenty Carrboro students prepare soil, tend to plants, and build new additions to the garden infrastructure. Students also aid in replacing barren lawn grass in the front of the school with trees, and participate in beekeeping.

Recognizing that the garden needed capital to continue growing, one teacher at Carrboro reached out to the EFC to work with students on identifying and pursuing outside funding sources. After meeting with students to learn about their group’s needs, we taught students how to pull together a project implementation plan that included a project overview, budget plan, and funding priorities. The EAC identified immediate needs of deer fencing, lumber for an additional raise garden bed, and building a chicken coop for fresh eggs.

With the EFC’s help, the Eco-Action Club grant writing team identified six grants, and has applied for more than $7,750 since September, from groups including NC State University, Annie’s Homegrown, and Whole Foods. To date, they have won $1,250 and recently had a garden workday to build a fourth raised bed and install deer fencing. This group also won the inaugural LEAF SEED Grant for $500, which is designed to support student-led sustainability projects in schools while building the environmental and financial literacy of students and the wider school community.

East Chapel Hill High School Solar Working Group

Students at East Chapel Hill High School (ECHHS) are eager to learn more about and find ways to install renewable energy technology at their school. To do this work, they formed the Solar Panel Project (SPP) Team and identified four main goals: 1) make the school more energy efficient, 2) create unique educational opportunities for students, 3) demonstrate the importance of clean energy in the community, and 4) help ECHHS be a leader for sustainability in public schools. Student leaders meet weekly to actively pursue their goals.

Through our work with the team’s faculty advisor and the CHCCS Sustainability Coordinator, the EFC connected with the SPP and was invited to help think through strategies to approach installing a photovoltaic system on campus and engage the student body. In addition to writing grants, students organized an in-school energy audit and went around, room-by-room, counting lights and electrical appliances to better inform energy efficiency decisions and try to avoid wasteful consumption. They used data collected to further their work.

Students have applied for more than $30,000 in grant resources, seeking funding for solar meters for classroom use, a professional energy audit for East’s buildings, and for a five kW solar array. They are working with the Sustainability Coordinator to engage the student body and school administration on energy-related topics, and are hoping to approach the PTSA with their project ideas as well. The EFC will continue the consult with the SPP when they need moving forward.

Carrboro High School Student Government Composting Initiative

The Carrboro HS Student Government is working to increase awareness of their school’s composting infrastructure, which includes compost bins, signs and regular pick-ups by solid waste trucks. Despite being a large high school, Carrboro produces some of the smallest amounts of compost per student in the district. Student government leaders have been meeting regularly with the EFC throughout the fall semester. We are working to develop a project implementation plan and are in the process of identifying barriers and benefits and are talking with art students to design attractive compost-focused signage. Ultimately, student government is aiming to cultivate a more sustainability-minded culture at Carrboro, and is hoping to have compost and vermiculture bins in every classroom. The EFC is still working with these students to increase their school’s compost production.