At this innovative urban high school project-based learning addresses environmental justice

With a focus on environmental justice, XQ school Furr offers its 1,100 students hands-on projects that combine academic standards with ecology and sustainability.

By Team XQ

For Juan Gallegos, a senior at Furr High School in Houston, the pivotal moment came during a class field trip to a local refinery. He tried to join his classmates on the tour, but when he stood up, he was so light-headed he had to stay on the bus.

“All the smoke and chemicals – it was nasty. I always knew about the refinery, but I didn’t realize how bad it was. It was eye-opening,” said Juan. “Someone said, if you live in Houston your whole life you’ll never breathe clean air. That isn’t right.”

A focus on environmental justice

Juan and his classmates at Furr are committed to changing attitudes—and environmental health—in Houston and beyond. With a focus on environmental justice, Furr offers its 1,100 students a plethora of hands-on projects that merge academic standards with ecology and sustainability. The goal is to get students out of the classroom and into neighborhoods and parks across the city, learning how policies and everyday practices can make a difference in the urban environment.

“It’s important our students understand where they live, what the issues are and what we can all do about it,” said principal Steven Stapleton. “Our community is the epicenter of a big urban city facing a number of environmental and social justice issues, such as food deserts, gentrification, polluted air and water, flooding and climate change. These are not abstract issues – they’re right here, right now, every day.”

A hands-on approach to learning

Furr High, an XQ school, is a comprehensive public high school in east Houston that primarily serves low-income Latinx and black students. The area is dotted with refineries and petrochemical plants, resulting in some of the worst air pollution in the U.S. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, Houston has higher-than-expected rates of lung, esophagus and larynx cancers.

Not far from Furr High is 900-acre Hermann Park, an oasis of nature and open space that’s also marred by litter in some places. That’s where Furr High students come in. As part of a class project, students conduct a “trash audit” in which they collect litter from the park, bring it back to the classroom to sort and tally what they find. Working with a research nonprofit, they track what ends up in the park, who manufactured it, and what can be done.

Juan had been going to Hermann Park his entire life and never thought much about the litter, until this project, he said.

“I guess I was kind of used to it,” he said. “But this gives us the chance to think about it more. I really don’t like how there’s so much trash in the park. I really notice it now.”

His classmate, sophomore Morgan Osegueda, was also disturbed by the amount of garbage in the park: Soda cans, fast food wrappers, cigar packets, beer bottles, and endless bits of plastic.

“I’d like to see it cleaner so more people would visit,” she said. “There’s a lot of wildlife and nature in the park, but I think because of all the trash, people don’t always see it or appreciate it.

Sharing their work with the world

In part because of the success of their trash audit, Morgan and Juan were selected to attend the International Youth Summit on Plastic Pollution, scheduled for Feb. 28 – March 1 in Dana Point, Calif. They’ll join 150 other students from around the world to share their insights and brainstorm solutions to plastic pollution.

Morgan said she’s excited to meet other students engaged in similar work, and hopefully, make a difference.

“I feel really honored I’ve been given this opportunity,” she said. “But it’s not about me personally. We really want to hold companies accountable, so they can see what they’re doing and hopefully find a way to make products that aren’t so toxic.”

The trash audit is just one hands-on environmental project that Furr students are engaged in. They also conduct research on so-called “food deserts,” areas of the city with few groceries that sell fresh, healthy food. Students also test the water quality in local creeks and routinely meet with experts from various environmental fields.

A monument to sustainability

In addition, the campus itself is a monument to sustainability, with a large vegetable garden and more than 100 chickens, tended by students. Over the past few years, students have planted more than 100 fruit trees and undertaken other projects around Houston, thanks to collaborations with groups including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Nature Explore, Texas A&M University, Texas A&M Forest Department, the City of Houston, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, and Project Learning Tree.

Finding meaning inside the classroom, and out

For principal Stapleton, environmental justice is the perfect way to meld deeper learning, student voice and project-based learning – three components of the XQ Learner Goals and XQ School Design that make for well-rounded graduates who are prepared for college, career, and real-world challenges.

“We want our students to learn both inside and outside the classroom. And that’s why we ask our teachers, how are you implementing environmental justice in the classroom?” Stapleton said. “The goal of our school is for our students to find meaning and value in their work and what they’re learning. It all ties together.”

The approach has made a big impression on Juan and Morgan. Both want to continue studying and advocating for the environment after they graduate, in their careers as well as their everyday lives.

“Furr makes me want to stay involved,” Juan said, adding that he’s considering becoming a teacher. “I want to stay committed to what I’ve been doing. I’ll continue to be that voice locally and hopefully have an impact on a larger scale.”

Morgan’s goal is to go to college in New York and become a writer. But environmentalism will always be the core of her work, in college and beyond, she said.

“I want to show everyone how bad it is, but also how we can all make a difference,” she said. “I want to move to the East Coast, but anywhere I go, I want to be active environmentally and educate people about what’s going on.”

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