Will PPS Ever Enforce the Addition of a Climate Literacy Curriculum?

Students rallying outside of Portland City Hall during the March 15 protest on climate change. A similar crowd appeared outside of the PPS District Office to demand action be taken to educate Portland’s children about the severity of climate change.
Photo by Solomon Duke (12)

On March 17, 2016, the Portland Board of Education passed a resolution that aimed to put a new climate literacy curriculum into Portland schools. This resolution was named the “Resolution to Develop an Implementation Plan for Climate Literacy,” or simply Resolution No. 5272. It recognized that “it is essential that in their classes and other school activities, students probe the causes and consequences of the climate crisis,” and look for potential solutions, stating that, “all Portland Public Schools students should develop confidence and passion when it comes to making a positive difference in society, and come to see themselves as activists and leaders for social and environmental justice.” The resolution called for the building of a new curriculum that would be added to Portland schools, but conceded that Portland Public Schools did not have a specific plan about how to help district educators develop or implement that curriculum.

It has been over three years since this resolution was passed, and it seems that little has been done by the Portland Public Schools administration to enforce the changes the Board of Education set out to make. Earlier this year, thousands of students walked out of class to protest climate change, with students crowding the downtown district office to call for climate change education to be added to the curriculum. Students protested the lack of climate literacy in schools, and demanded that PPS acknowledge the need for change and address the urgent climate crisis in the classroom. While the school district has been praised for being one of the first to put global climate justice into the curriculum with the passing of Resolution No. 5272, members of administration have not followed through on the district’s promises to implement any sort of curriculum change, leaving students to fight back in order to see any forward progress in making Portland’s students climate literate.

Although members of Portland Public Schools administration have shown a lack of commitment to enforcing this new curriculum, the Portland Public Schools Climate Justice Committee has been making strong efforts to help teachers and students understand the climate crisis and the need for climate literacy in schools. “Our Portland Public Schools Climate Justice Committee has led many workshops for teachers on how to teach powerfully about the climate crisis,” says Bill Bigelow, a former PPS high school social studies teacher who is now the curriculum editor for Rethinking Schools magazine. Bigelow is also co-director of the Zinn Education Project, a non-profit that provides students with more accurate and engaging resources and materials than what is found in traditional textbooks and curricula. “We recently sponsored a strategy session for about 50 high school and middle school students with adult members of our committee to strategize about how we can help bring bold climate justice education to all Portland schools,” says Bigelow.

The PPS Climate Justice Committee wants to see real changes made in schools. “[Ideally] all K-12 students would have access to a curriculum that teaches them the science of climate change, the deep social and economic causes for the crisis, and what students and others can do to address it. [The curriculum] would focus especially on who is profiting from the causes of this crisis, like the fossil fuel companies; and it would focus on who is especially suffering from the crisis,” says Bigelow. The PPS Climate Justice Committee has proposed plans that would fully put Resolution No. 5272 into effect. The proposed plans include the support of “robust climate justice professional development, the participation of PPS students in climate justice work in the school district, [and] frontline communities as they organize and educate about the climate crisis.” They are also calling for climate justice education to be incorporated into all PPS classes in all disciplines. “This is an emergency and we all need to treat it that way. Students need to join the activists that are pressing school administrators to do the right thing on climate justice education,” says Bigelow. “The climate crisis affects everyone, but it especially affects young people. They will live in a world that is changing quickly in scary ways. Our schools need to help them understand what’s going on and help them act to change things.” The PPS Climate Justice Committee met with members of the school district at the school board meeting on May 14 to demand that their plans be implemented, and Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said that the district will be working on it.

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