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EPA’s Student Environmental Development Program for Inner City Youth Marks it’s 10th Year - August 21 was graduation day for Philadelphia students
Release Date: 8/21/2003
Contact Information: Donna Heron, 215-814-5113 and Larry Brown, 215-814-5527
Donna Heron, 215-814-5113 and Larry Brown, 215-814-5527
PHILADELPHIA – On August 19, 38 inner city students from D.C. and Philadelphia, Pa. gave an environmental presentation to the National Fish and Wildlife Agency in West Virginia.
For a 13-year-old such a performance could be a daunting experience. But by the time the conference rolled around, these middle school students really knew their stuff.
For the past 10 years, EPA’s Student Environmental Development Program immerses students in environmental issues such as children’s asthma, lead, sun safety, water pollution, second-hand smoke, and the dangers of eating contaminated fish. Back at school, these kids will have lots to talk about when they share summer vacation stories with their friends.
But there’s more. Students also learn a variety of life skills such as public speaking, how to think critically, and how to communicate across cultural lines. They also learn about job skills, self esteem, peer pressure and what it means to take personal and civic responsibility.
Students come to class five days a week and are taught, mentored and chaperoned by more than 200 EPA employees and community volunteers. They go on field trips to power plants, water treatment centers, aquariums, nature centers and wildlife refuges. And they work in teams to produce a final presentation on an environmental topic. This year those presentations were given at the National Fish and Wildlife Federation in West Virginia and during the August 19 graduation ceremonies held at George Washington University in D.C.
The SEDP program got it’s start in Philadelphia in 1993 with 28 inner city high school students.
Those first two years set the standard for the environmental education to come. Those 28 high school students definitely took a lot of environmental knowledge back with them to their families, friends and their community.
But employees of EPA’s Mid-Atlantic region realized that if they wanted to make a difference in the lives of these kids, they would have to target a younger audience.
“By the time students reach high school, it’s too late to help them make life decisions,” said Larry Brown, director of the SEDP program. “In those first two years we had kids who wanted to go to medical school, but they hadn’t taken any science or math classes. It was heartbreaking. No one had ever sat them down and helped them with career or life planning. From our first SEDP class in 1993, two students went on to college.”
Contrast that with the SEDP classes of 1996 and 1997. All the kids are in college.
While there is some competition involved in getting accepted into the SEDP program, not everyone is a superstar. In some cases they are academically borderline. But Brown says the teachers, mentors and volunteers spend a lot of one-on-one time with the kids helping them figure out college and occupation choices, and ultimately helping them with important life decisions.
This year there were a total of 38 enrolled in the program – 21 in Philadelphia, and 17 in D.C.
To date about 250 students have completed the program. And they take what they’ve learned back to their schools and communities. EPA estimates that approximately 50,000 people have been touched by this program.
Most students stay in touch with the friends they met. It’s not unusual for graduates, now in high school and college, to return year after year as mentors to the new class. Or they call just to say hi. A typical phone call might be to say “I’m calling to tell you that I’m entering college this year and I’ll be majoring in biology, chemistry, environmental studies, environmental law, geology (well, you get the picture) because of SEDP.”
During the graduation ceremonies, it’s the parents who praise the program to Brown and the rest of the volunteers. “They’ll say, ‘I learned not to pour car oil on the ground,’ or ‘we learned the value of recycling.’ They go through a list of environmental dos and don’ts which they have learned from their son or daughter.
And every year without fail Brown hears about the drastic changes the program has had on some of the kids. The ones who weren’t so interested in doing their homework or doing home chores have undergone a 180-degree change. “They’re washing the dishes, making beds and doing their home work, all without being told,” he said.
Each class is taught by a middle school science teacher. But it’s the employee mentors who really enhance their program. “They provide the kids with a sounding board and someone to relate to and to talk to outside class,” said Brown. “We hope these relationships will last a lifetime. So far, many of the student/mentors keep in touch after graduation.”
EPA’s Mid-Atlantic region is hoping that other regions and other federal, state and local government agencies will adopt a similar program. “We feel there is a shortage of programs like this,” Brown said. “We started the SEDP program last year in the District of Columbia because officials there have made youth programs a priority. We are hoping that the community will eventually take it over and EPA can then spread the program somewhere else.”