Five months into a global pandemic—at a time when planning even a week ahead felt nearly impossible—a group of bright, passionate students was looking ardently toward the future. In August of 2020, a collection of students at Poly High School and other area schools launched the Poly Green Schools Campaign, with aspirations of transitioning the Long Beach Unified School District to 100% clean, renewable energy in all sectors by 2040.
The Poly Green Schools Campaign—also called Poly GSC—recently hosted a Climate Town Hall virtually over Zoom. The group also invited the public, with the goal of increasing awareness and support for its cause. The presentation was student-led, featuring a handful of representatives from Poly’s prestigious PACE magnet program, as well as middle school students from Keller and Hughes. The group also welcomed a panel of guest speakers to help outline the challenges, benefits, and overall framework of their proposal.
PACE sophomore Diana Michaelson founded the Poly GSC after joining the Los Angeles chapter of the Green Schools Campaign, a global network of young activists intent on battling climate change. Michaelson and her classmates outlined the need for action and why Long Beach is an ideal location to make bold change.
“I really want to make sure our city—as a coastal city that’s feeling the impacts of climate change like almost no other city in the world—is habitable, safe and healthy for future generations,” said junior and Poly GSC secretary Hamid Torabzadeh. “And that we set a national standard of excellence for environmental sustainability and possibilities, led by students.”
Both middle school representatives spoke about their personal experiences with the effects of climate change, specifically regarding air pollution. Ruthie Heis is an eighth grader at Keller Middle School, who called out the worsening air quality in her neighborhood in West Long Beach. Dia Rubio is an eighth grader at Hughes who is concerned about the health problems experienced by younger generations in the community.
“I want to see LBUSD transition to 100% renewable energy because I have asthma and it’s caused by air pollution,” Rubio said. “I don’t want other people to have to go through that.”
The Climate Town Hall represents another milestone in Poly GSC’s actions over the past eight months, part of a concerted effort to influence LBUSD and city leadership. The group has already had meetings with LBUSD facilities director Alan Reising, school board member Megan Kerr, and new LBUSD superintendent Jill Baker. Long Beach’s 9th District Councilmember Rex Richardson was among the featured panelists and speakers for the Town Hall.
Richardson voiced his support for the campaign and also underscored the importance of dealing with the climate crisis in addition to the current housing, economic and public health crises related to COVID-19.
“We also are at a moment where the COVID-19 pandemic is really highlighting the need to redefine resiliency for cities,” Richardson said. “It’s no longer acceptable to only think of resiliency in terms of avoiding a disaster. We have to think about from the standpoint of ‘How do we build public health capacity within our city? How do we make our city cleaner and greener? How do we make our school district cleaner and greener?’”
The proposal from the Poly GSC is based on the plan adopted by the Los Angeles Unified School District back in December of 2019. The LAUSD made the commitment to transition all of its electrical power to 100% renewable energy by 2030, and ultimately move all of its energy sectors—including heating, ventilation, air conditioning, cooking and transportation—to renewable sources by 2040. The LAUSD is the second-largest school district in the country, serving more than 600,000 students.
The San Diego Unified School District has also committed to a complete transition to renewable energy, and has already made numerous investments in solar panels and other technology on its campuses. That leaves the LBUSD as the largest school district in the state that has yet to lay out a benchmark for 100% renewable energy.
Mary Lunetta is a senior campaign representative for the 100% Clean Energy School Districts Campaign, part of the Sierra Club’s national Ready For 100 Campaign. Lunetta and her team helped lead the effort to influence the LAUSD’s commitment to renewable energy, and she shared her expertise in working with cities and school districts to make these changes happen. According to Lunetta, The Ready For 100 program has gotten over 170 cities and towns to commit to 100% renewable energy, and there are 14 school districts across the country who have already passed these resolutions, with a dozen more active campaigns in the works.
“These campaigns are part of a huge movement, and winning these campaigns at the school district level is not just symbolic, it’s really powerful,” Lunetta stated. “School districts are oftentimes the largest energy users within a municipality. So when these cities, counties and in some cases whole states are committing to 100% clean energy, the school districts doing so also helps reinforce those commitments.”
The Poly GSC’s pitch to the LBUSD goes beyond just the environmental benefits of renewable energy. The group also stressed the long-term cost savings for the district, as well as the potential for unique on-site educational opportunities, as well as possible job training for LBUSD students.
“Our initiative will also create hands-on STEM learning opportunities around clean technologies, which would reinforce the district’s commitment to educate our youth,” said senior and Poly GSC Vice President Victoria Quach. “In turn, the district can implement a workforce-development program at our school in which students can help manage the solar panels in high school and eventually work on the systems themselves.”
The Poly Green Schools Campaign started an online petition via the Sierra Club and has already collected 700 signatures in support of its proposal. Michaelson said she hopes to continue expanding the Green Schools Campaign to more campuses and to bring in even more community support.
“The goal is that we’ll end up coming to the LBUSD board and showing them the list of people and notable organizations that support us, and show that we are a very well-rounded community,” Michaelson said. “And we’re not just kids from Poly. One of the hardest challenges that we’re having right now is reaching out to other communities such as those at Wilson, Millikan, Cabrillo, Lakewood, and other high schools and middle schools in Long Beach. We’re always looking for students, parents, teachers, and staff from these schools that can help build support in their school.”
For more information on the Poly Green Schools Campaign, visit their website at PolyGSC.com.