St. Catherine’s Montessori students dedicated to environment, a sustainable future

April 23, 2019

A young primary school student at St. Catherine’s Montessori in Houston cuts fresh carrots for a snack. St. Catherine’s Montessori is hosting a climate change symposium on Friday, May 3 from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. at 9821 Timberside, Houston, TX 77025. The symposium is free and open to the public. To register, visit www.stcathmont.org/climatechange. Photo courtesy of St. Catherine’s Montessori.

HOUSTON — St. Catherine’s Montessori is an independent Catholic school in southwest Houston serving students aged 14 months to 18 years where environmental stewardship is integrated into every stage of a child’s education. 

“One component of the school’s philosophy is that our students will play an important role in shaping our world,” said Susan Tracy, St. Catherine’s head of school. “By educating environmentally responsible people, we’re investing in a sustainable future.”

The school is committed to maintaining and developing the 10-and-a-half-acre campus in a sustainable way. The school’s campus, which includes the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certified K-12 school building, also includes a soccer field, pond, orchard, chicken coop, bees and 11 classroom gardens. St. Catherine’s also owns three acres and leases additional property adjacent to Japhet Creek for a small orchard and garden that provides a variety of fruits and vegetables.

An embodiment of the school’s commitment to educating students about the environment and instilling the knowledge that they can make a difference in caring for the global community will take place on Friday, May 3, when students in seventh through 12th grades host a symposium called “From Knowing to Acting.” The student-driven event is devoted to educating attendees about solutions to climate change, empower them to take action and to help create a sustainable future for Houston. 

The day will include student-moderated panels featuring a variety of environmental and climate change experts, a film on climate change, and a student art exhibition. The panel of experts includes Father Donald S. Nesti, founder of the Center for Faith and Culture at the University of St. Thomas, and Katharine Hayhoe, director of the at Texas Tech’s Climate Science Center, who will be joining the panel discussion virtually.

Sophia Devereux, a junior at the school, said Kathy Hijazi, a teacher with a strong science background, encouraged the students to apply for a National Wildlife Federation grant

“Everyone was really excited with the grant; it was an opportunity to do something and discuss climate change in our community,” Devereux said. “We decided that the best way to use the funds was to host a symposium.”

She said the symposium’s planning has been entirely student-driven. Once they decided to host the symposium, every student selected a subject they personally wanted to research. 

Tracy said the students researched the projects they’ll be presenting themselves, after working with mentors, experts and professionals in their fields of interest.

Devereux said while some students have mentors who lived in Houston, hers lived in Washington D.C. Her mentor, who works at the Center for International Environmental Law, helped to guide the junior through her research on “The Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibility within the Realm of International Climate Legislation,” which Devereux said is a principle based on the understanding that we all have a common responsibility to take care of the earth. 

“We all live here; climate change is a global issue,” she said. “We don’t have little bubbles where, it’s like what the U.S. emits, stays in the U.S. Ultimately, it affects everyone.”

The students’ individual presentations include a wide variety of topics such as the impact of food waste on climate change, glaciers and sea level rise, the Paris Agreement, the effects of animal agriculture, the disproportionate effects of climate change on low-income communities, the effects of bio fuels and the relationship between Catholic teachings and climate change.

“Everyone is invited to the ‘From Knowing to Acting’ symposium,” Tracy said. “I believe everyone who attends will learn a lot about the climate crisis and will leave feeling empowered to take action.”

The building blocks of environmental education

Learning about the environment starts with the one- and two-year olds at St. Catherine, who Tracy said learn to plant flowers and vegetables that they harvest for snacks. They also collect eggs from the chickens, observe caterpillars and butterflies, compost food scraps and grow food to feed the class rabbit, she said.

The primary students, ages three to six, are taught to explore through their senses and move freely between the inside and outdoors for lessons and lunchtime. They take nature walks to the orchard, plant flowers to attract butterflies to observe its life cycle.

At the elementary level — first through sixth grade — it is believed a child’s reasoning mind develops. By the age of six, they want to understand the rules and “why” of things, to know how rules and circumstances impact them and others and have a heightened interest in social justice. 

They enjoy deepening and broadening their understanding of concepts through group work and listening to stories specifically designed to help a child grasp the complexity of the universe, school officials said. In this time the school uses the Montessori 5 “Great Stories,” which include “Coming of the Universe and the Earth” and “Coming of Life.”

These stories are a springboard for research in chemistry, physics, astronomy, geography, geology, zoology, botany and paleontology. A first-grader may do a research project on an animal that interests them, while a fourth-grader will do a more in-depth research project such as studying pond life, the weather, causes of erosion or studying different forms of energy production.

Tracy said students in the adolescent community — grades seventh through ninth — are guided towards accepting more responsibility for themselves, including their health, work, peers and environment.

“With this in mind, we offer a broad and deep range of experiences fostering their need for social development, intellectual stimulation, creative expression, independence and responsibility, as well as spiritual and personal growth.”

When they enter the adolescent community, students themselves work in the Japhet Creek property, planting new crops from seedlings to harvest, the produce, alongside the byproducts of the rest of their efforts, they sell to reinvest back into other projects.

Recent purchases have included solar panels and a wind turbine, both of which enhance the school’s commitment to environmental stewardship.
By this stage of their development, students tend to become increasingly concerned about their global home now and the one they will inhabit as adults.

“They want to learn more about the issues and to make a difference,” said Hijazi, adolescent community and high school program coordinator and guide. “Our community supports this work, and it is incorporated into the curriculum for civic, environmental, and theological study. Students frequently meet local legislators, business leaders, scientists and community activists to learn more about the issues.’”

Earlier this month all students in the adolescent community went to Austin and met with representatives to discuss the bills and policies that concern them and the actions they would like to see.

“Our goal is to foster each child’s unique talents and interests,” said Tracy. “Therefore, after exploring a variety of subjects at a basic level each student identifies areas they want to develop further.”

In the ninth grade, students have the opportunity to do an internship with an organization or person in a field of specific interest. Freshman Julia Lewis said, “Climate change is affecting us right now, it will continue to affect us, and we’re going to be the ones that have to deal with the consequences, but if we act now, we can make a difference.”

Lewis said that as her education has progressed, she has become very interested in environmental policy. In October 2018, she went to Washington D.C. for two weeks where she interned with a sustainability architect.

There she learned about the lengthy processes of green buildings, especially for LEED certification. While there, she also met with public policy groups focused on environmental issues to learn about their efforts to solve the “climate crisis,” she said.

As the older adolescents transition to high school (10th through 12th grades), their interests become broader and they seek and find opportunities to impact not only their immediate community but also the global one.

The sciences and humanities studies are intentionally integrated to support a more complete understanding of the world and how the global processes of trade, economics, and current affairs directly affects them. They also understand that they must be advocates for those without a voice.

As in the Adolescent Community, the high school curriculum flows from the student interests, and the guides facilitate internships and projects with professionals from all occupations to help illuminate the individual path that each student will take.

Tracy said at St. Catherine’s Montessori, which is an accredited and certified Montessori school, “we ultimately want our students to know that there are many paths to take going forward in their education and future careers as peacemakers and environmentalists endowed in the tradition of Dominican Charism.”