Woodstock Day School Wins International EcoChallenge

May 31, 2019

A private school in New York’s Hudson Valley has won an international challenge aimed at addressing climate change. The Woodstock Day School amassed the most points worldwide in the Drawdown EcoChallenge, coming out as both top school and top team.

Out of 1,054 teams, 79 countries and 14,144 participants, the Woodstock Day School amassed the most points. The Project Drawdown EcoChallenge is an annual, 21-day engagement program focused on carbon reduction, and follows actions highlighted in environmentalist Paul Hawken’s bestselling book “Drawdown: the Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming.” Woodstock Day School Librarian Robin Shornstein says it all begin when she and a colleague left a Drawdown Learn event held at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck last fall compelled to participate.

“Let’s forget the science fair,” Shorstein says. “We’re going to do this instead.”

The consciousness raising educational initiative brings forward a solutions-based approach to climate change. Shornstein says the most actively involved grades were fifth and higher, and parents were involved as well. Head of School David Penberg.

“This is far more than winning a competition,” Penberg says. “It’s all about raising collective or community awareness, and changing behavior.”

In the EcoChallenge, participants engaged in various sustainability-oriented, point-earning actions, tracking and sharing progress online. More than 80 actions within seven challenge categories provided participants with diverse options to reduce carbon usage, like helping efforts to educate girls in developing countries, eating more plants, upcycling, composting, planting trees, eliminating plastic bag usage and properly disposing refrigerants. Shornstein says one of the goals is to create new habits.

“A lot of these pieces are measureable,” Shornstein says. “And I think that’s really key for all of us but, especially if you are younger, it gave you immediate feedback as to the impact you were having.”

It’s something that resonated with ninth grader Asha Lee.

“Since the EcoChallenge, I have found that I can make a compost bin in my house and use low-flush toilets and there are just little things in my life I can do — eating a vegan meal a day —   that I wouldn’t have done before because I didn’t really think that that would make a difference, and it really does, especially with something like the EcoChallenge where a group of people get together and decide, I can do this little thing, and it makes a big change.”

Lee and her friends focused on helping women and girls.

“So we made fem kits for groups in our school,” says Lee. “We send people to Nepal and India because we donate money, so we sent these fem kits with them.”

The kits contain menstrual products, such as hand-sewn pads. Madeleine Birnbaum is an eighth grader.

“Individual things, we set up a compost system in my house for the first time. We planted trees in the yard that we’ve been wanting to do for a while,” Birnbaum says. “We tried to look for bamboo instead of plastic, and we tried to reuse a lot of items that we would usually throw out, and little things like that.”

She says her dad was completely on board with the ideas and very involved though she felt she was educating him.

“When I’d talk to my dad about climate change, even before the challenge, he wasn’t as educated as me. The school and my teachers have taught me more than he ever knew,” says Birnbaum. “He knew the politics, of course, because he watches the news and stuff, but I started, we used to get in fights and I’d be like, no, actually it’s because of this, and stuff like that.”

Olivia Siegel also is in eighth grade.

“I think the main thing that this helped me with was changing habits and getting awareness because I really, I was aware that this was happening in our earth and it was really terrifying to me and, but it always felt like something I couldn’t really control and it was more of a big picture thing, which it is, totally, but there are little things that we can definitely do to help,” Siegal says.  “And I think after the EcoChallenge I have learned that there’s stuff that I can do to help and I don’t need to just sit in my house and worry about it. I can actually take charge and do something.”

“I think a really big thing for me was recycling and reusing and not using as much plastic because now it’s like every time I use a plastic straw, I’m, I feel so guilty,” says Siegel.

Shornstein believe that to most effectively reverse global warming, approaches need to include policy. And in this case, students have been working on letters to politicians concerning climate change issues. Meantime, Head of School Penberg is looking at ways to advance sustainability.

“There’ll be another EcoChallenge, I believe, during the summer and so our summer camp, we will begin the process weaning ourselves from plastic. So we’re going to make a go at being a plastic-free summer program,” says Penberg. “That will clearly translate into approaches for next year.”

And this could include getting rid of plastic utensils. Penberg says two overall concepts stand out: environmental activism/advocacy.

“One is that, our role as a convener in bringing together the other schools and organizations in the region to begin to explore how do we work together on projects that, in fact, have a positive impact on the natural world,” Penberg says. “So that’s one thing. And that means then going to, and we’ve already started to reach out to Rhinebeck, to Red Hook, to Kingston and to, again, see how can we work collectively.”

For environmental stewardship, he says the school will focus on natural resource inventory on its site to better understand the impact of climate change.

By way of disclosure, Woodstock Day School has been a WAMC underwriter.