Gympie East – Green and proud of it!

by Zela Bissett (AAEE Member and SSN Friend)

As a member of the Australian Association for Environmental Education, I am always excited to see schools succeeding in embedding the cross-curriculum priority of environmental sustainability. That is why, when I was asked to speak at Gympie East State School on Friday February 5 and present the school captains with their badges, I was both honoured and delighted.

Gympie East State School is a school with a proud history of environmental education. During the Earth Smart Science program which ran from 2010 till 2012, I visited the school and was impressed with the thriving gardens, frog ponds, compost heaps and native forest plantings, as well as the high morale among staff and students.
From the start of the UN decade of Sustainable development Students from Gympie East students attended all the Sustainable schooling forums and events with dedicated teacher Fiona Cole. The United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014) sought to mobilise the educational resources of the world to help create a more sustainable future, and teams from this remarkable school would always present an engaging PowerPoint showing their achievements. At times they took teams of visiting educators on tours of their enviable grounds. This is an extract I wrote after a visit as Science Spark in 2011:

“It’s amazing when you go to this school, how everything seems to be thriving, and bursting with growth. Sometimes I see school gardens that look dried out or neglected, but here the impression is of abundance and rampant fertility supported by detailed knowledge and care. Happy chooks, extensive worm farms, frog habitat, raised vegetable beds. A bushwalk in the grounds reveals a ropes course and fitness circuit. At a recent YES symposium, a busload of visitors went on a tour of Gympie East, guided by the senior students. They were impressed by the high level of ownership and knowledge displayed by the students. To ensure effective curriculum links, each class teacher also completed a workshop with Angela Colliver from Carbon Kids to support them in embedding these rich resources in curriculum.”

From this it is clear that in 2011 Gympie East State School was a showcase school for environmental education. One of the ongoing concerns of environmental educators is the need to take special care of the schools which are doing an outstanding job both in practice and through curriculum. In the period following the end of Earth Smart Science, Gympie East’s journey in sustainability was set back quite seriously by a poorly managed Principal appointment. However by 2018 incoming Principal Scott Thompson wrote in the yearly report:
Gympie East State School has a proud environmental tradition as a “Green and Healthy School’. We have received several awards for our innovation in this area and are continually looking for ways to reduce our carbon footprint. Our Environmental and Gardening Program plays a major role in our school culture. Every student spends at least one session a week working in our garden, forest school or engaging with the environment.

Scott gave his reasons for this commitment with the words, “The community expects it,” and this is a testimony to how a school culture can be resilient under duress. For 2021, enthusiasm for environmental education has been confirmed under Acting Principal Jenny Chammen, and inspiring staff member Shona Sengstock, coordinator of the school’s gardens, environment and community program. Shona works with all students in the garden during the course of each week, then runs sessions where they cook produce into healthy meals. The school’s Nature Play area contains a fitness circuit and each class spends two periods each week there. These lessons follow forest school principles including seasonal observation, biodiversity assessment and bushland study.

I was touched to hear the students recite a Credo from the Earth Charter at their assembly. During my address to the whole school, students were asked what they thought was special about their school. I received a range of answers from chooks, gardens, worm farms, compost heaps and a Nature Play area. Students also revealed an understanding of the role of people in this mix, with a big clap being given to Shona by the entire staff, students and parents present. When I tried to have a few words with Shona after the presentation she was already heading off towards the garden with buckets of scraps from afternoon tea. I managed to get her to slow down long enough to photograph her by the garden and hear her inspiring ideas for the future.

Her own three children have attended this school, and her son was one of the school leaders I presented with a badge. Inspirational Year 4 teacher Karen Blackburn shared her plans for the first term of 2021, when her class will transform an outdoor area adjacent to the classroom as an outdoor learning area. Mathematical knowledge comes in with measuring timber and canvas for seating, and the overall plans fit within technology and innovation. Several young teachers on staff have a wonderful opportunity to experience a school which truly enacts environmental sustainability in both curriculum and practice and learn from such experienced colleagues.
I hope I impressed upon the students their good fortune in attending such a school and also the responsibility they will bear as future guardians of planet Earth. I can think of no school more likely to prepare students with the skills and knowledge they will need in this task than Gympie East State School.

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