An Interview with Merry Sorrells
St Paul’s Episcopal School
The Mission of St. Paul’s Episcopal School in New Orleans is to instill in children the strength of intellect and strength of character in a Christian environment that is positive, respective and familial. They encourage their students to strive to do their best, to be humane, and to appreciate the beauty of life. Merry Sorrell, the Head of School, came to the school at a critical point when, due to the floodwaters of hurricane Katrina, the school was questioning its own ability to keep its doors open and to keep its student registration up.
When I first came to St. Paul’s school in New Orleans, the school had been flooded by the waters from Katrina. Our school was devastated by the hurricane and we had to restore and rebuild. 80% of our faculty and families lost everything in the hurricane. By the time I arrived, the neighborhood was probably less than 40% recovered. We had to rebuild ourselves as a viable school as well as build enrollment. In order to do this, we had to find our niche. We had to become a school that attracted people from outside of our neighborhood because inside, our community was devastated.
I went to a conference for New Heads of School in Washington D.C. and I saw Sidwell Friends campus which has a $24 million LEED certified science building for their Middle School. They had a simulated wetland outdoors. It made me think, we are a wetland and our wetlands are tremendously compromised. We are losing wetlands continually. Our students could be the ones to help bring back our city and help bring back our wetlands if we could teach our kids well. If we could take on the elements of teaching our kids the connections that they need to make to secure a sustainable future. They could be the ones to bring back our city. As a school, we adopted that mission. At the annual NAIS conference I went to Jaimie Cloud’s presentation and knew immediately that we needed to engage her in helping us design the curriculum.
One aspect that we’re working on for our Educating for Sustainability curriculum is to develop the open space on our campus as an outdoor classroom. This year we have appointed our middle school social studies teacher to take on a new position as our Director of Outdoor Education. We are working to bring an outdoor component to our curriculum across all grade levels and disciplines. We are working with the Arbor Day Foundation’s Outdoor Explore program. They design a play yard with equipment that incorporates play and will allow us to teach science, math, performing arts and storytelling all in an outdoor setting.
Through a grant from the Louisiana University Cooperative Extension we’ve just designed a community garden. They’re helping us install a demonstration garden with a rainwater management system, but the students will do the planting and ground preparation. There will be wheelchair pathways and benches to and from the garden and it’ll be really beautiful outdoor space. We are going to share it with other schools in our community. Our garden will be a 78 by 38 foot teaching garden. A lot of the students’ science and math and all of their subject areas are going to be taught outdoors in these outdoor spaces. We’re also going to have an outdoor culinary area where we will take what we grow and use it to learn math and science through cooking. We’re working on a partnership with a local fresh market through which our kids will learn economics by selling the produce that they grow and it will be incorporated into our meal plan as well. We want our outdoor area to be as significant to what we teach as our indoor spaces.
We really want children to make connections about what is happening around them. We want them to engage in problem solving. When we started this initiative, several of us read a book called Last Child in the Woods. The premise of that book is that the very people, the children who we’re expecting to save the earth and to make the changes we need to make have no familiarity with it. They don’t wander the woods, they don’t know trails, the plants, or the animal and bird life that surrounds them. They don’t have a familiarity. They have grown up with soccer clubs and concrete and they are not really familiar with the outdoors, the same outdoors that we’re asking them to protect. Our theory is that if we can give them that kind of a familiarity where in their daily life they’re thinking about these connections and they’re thinking about the impact that they have on their future and they learn to love holding a caterpillar and watching a caterpillar turn into a butterfly or spending an hour looking at a patch of grass and seeing the ecosystem there and writing about it. Then that’s what they’re going to want to do in their future. They will want to preserve that. The mission of Sustainability falls right in line with our mission statement as a school- to teach our students to preserve and appreciate the beauty of life.
Mostly, I have played a visionary role. My administration, faculty and staff have just run with it. We went to a sustainability conference in Atlanta last summer, and the idea went from being mine to everyone buying into it and adopting it as their own. After the first morning of being there, we sat at the lunch table, and it transferred from me talking to everyone having a discussion. We came back from the Sustainability Institute, and our administrative team designed a period every Friday where our entire middle school and volunteers stop classes and go outside. We have a gardening group, a composting group, a recycling group, and a campus beatification group. The kids come into their next class with dirt on their hands. The students weed and they plant and they do yard work; they design our garden and our outdoor space with us. Since the hurricane, New Orleans has stopped recycling, so our students collect the recycling on campus and they bring some from home and they raise money to pay a company to come and pick it up. They have bake sales, and they find different ways to raise money. Our pre-K students crush cans and all of that goes into paying for us to be able to recycle in the community. The faculty and staff have just run with the ideas. Now, the whole faculty is working on rewriting our curriculum that integrates sustainability.
When we first came up with the idea, we were bold enough and naïve enough to announce it publicly. We immediately made a press release announcing that St. Paul’s Episcopal School was going to build a multi-million dollar green facility and have an outdoor classroom. We hadn’t talked to anybody, but we were going to partner with LSU and we were going to have our children learn to save our wetlands and we were going to work with public and private schools across the city. We were going to bridge the barrier between public and private. And we announced it to everybody. In doing so, we committed ourselves. Now, almost three years later we have realized every step of it by way of being committed.
Once we announced that we were going to be a Green School early that first school year, two students came to me and asked if they could talk to me about an idea they had. So I had lunch with them and they said they wanted to form a green club. We had them write a mission and they named themselves the Green Team. They met at lunch and it grew to two tables full of students that came up with their own initiatives to do. The students have been successful leaders in sustainability and it is really exciting to see.
We’re also looking to integrate the culinary part into our curriculum and having our students help with the design of it. We met with a local grocer that has a fresh market. They’re a locally owned grocery store that had maybe 6 store locations before the hurricane, went down to zero, and now they’re building their third or fourth right now in this area. We sent them a letter and told them what we’re doing and asked if they’d be interested in partnering with us and they came this morning. We keep building partnerships, we contact people and tell them what we’re doing and tell them that the community aspect is very important to us, and everyone loves the idea. So we just keep putting our name out there and communicating with everyone we can think of and getting as much involvement as we can.
I think the thing that we’ve learned is that you need to be resourceful. We didn’t really have an idea of how to go about it. We’ve spent a lot of time just trying to research and find out what’s happening and learn the language, just understanding the real purpose and mission. We realized that if we understood why, why we would want to teach sustainability and if we could articulate it well to our families and to the community, we could get all the support we needed. At St. Paul’s, we haven’t had the funding to do any of it so we do the ground floor thinking first. We started with curriculum and teaching. So we’ll always end up with our students thinking this way. The next step we have right now is to make the physical changes. We’ve worked on our curriculum and we’ll continue to, but now we’re adding the physical changes we need to support it.
Our school has had a total change in identity in this direction and I think a lot of the community, when we talk to different community groups and organizations, sees us now as a school that’s working to teach this way of thinking. We’re having an impact on our community. A lot of outreach from St. Paul’s has gone to bring back our community, which was devastated. Our intent from the beginning has been to have a strong positive impact on the community. I think that specifically, the most critical area that we’re teaching our students is sustainability problem solving. In this way, the school is teaching them to be aware and make connections between the past, the present, and the future, and to pay attention to their impact and what’s happened in the past and the lessons they can learn from it. The curriculum supports these connections by incorporating problem solving, mental reasoning, and global awareness. All of that is part of sustainability. What gives me a sense of hope is just seeing it grow and knowing that it’s growing because it’s so much the right thing to do.