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School Didn't Recycle, So Fifth-Graders Started A Program Themselves

 Deneen Elementary School students Mirycle Smith (from l.), Tasha Barnes and  Rondell Wetzel created a schoolwide recycling program with the help of their teacher, Kelsey Sohrweide.
Deneen Elementary School students Mirycle Smith (from l.), Tasha Barnes and Rondell Wetzel created a schoolwide recycling program with the help of their teacher, Kelsey Sohrweide.
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DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson

GRAND CROSSING — A group of Deneen Elementary fifth-graders has started a schoolwide recycling program.

After learning about the negative effects of not recycling, three students desperately wanted to know if Deneen had its own recycling program. When told ‘no’ by their teacher, it didn’t take long for the trio to launch “Going Green at Deneen” at the school at 7257 S. State St.

Now the entire fifth-grade class is participating.

“They were very adamant that we needed to tell the school about it and see who was interested,” said language arts teacher Kelsey Sohrweide, of Wicker Park.

After sending out an email to the staff, 10 classrooms agreed to participate. The top-rated school became a turnaround school in 2010 when Academy for Urban School Leadership took over its operation. It has 580 students.

 Deneen Elementary School students created a schoolwide recycling program with the help of their teacher, Kelsey Sohrweide.
Deneen Elementary School students created a schoolwide recycling program with the help of their teacher, Kelsey Sohrweide.
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DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson

The students started recycling at the beginning of the school year and have already filled — and emptied — more than 500 recycle bins, Sohrweide said. They collect the recycle bins each Friday, and then Sohrweide takes them to a center to be recycled, she said.

When Sohrweide saw her students were interested in recycling, she signed her class up for the WE Schools program. The yearlong service program challenges young people to identify both local and global issues they care about and then gives them tools to take action.

The school’s new program received a $250 grant through WE Volunteer, a local campaign that is sponsored by the Allstate Foundation. The grant helped them buy more recycling bins and expand the program schoolwide.

They participated in WE Day Illinois on April 28 with almost 500 schools from across the state.

“It was extraordinary,” Francie Schnipke, director of Free The Children Illinois, said of the annual event that brought together nearly 15,000 students. “I think everyone in the building was inspired. What’s unique about this, is that it brings everyone together. We know these are very transformative experiences for young people. It sticks with them.”

She said that through evaluations, they’ve learned that even four to five years after a service project, 79 percent of students are still giving to charities and/or doing volunteer work.

“We saw all the people who were helping out, just like we were, so we weren’t the only ones contributing to the process of helping out the world,” said 11-year-old Rondell Wetzel.

Rondell said that he and his classmates learned why recycling is important from their teacher.

“We read an article about the environment,” said 10-year-old Mirycle Smith. “We got inspired by that article to recycle paper and things that we use in class every day.”

Mirycle said she was shocked to learn about the state of landfills and how much pollution is in the air.

Rondell said he was just as surprised.

“The shocking thing for me was when I saw inside of the packet and it said that to keep up with the natural resources that we’re using, we need a whole other earth and half of one,” he said.

Tasha Barnes, another group member, said she no longer ignores trash when she sees it on the street now. She encourages others to do the same.

“When I was younger, I would see stuff on the street and would just think people would pick that up by themselves; I wasn’t concerned about it,” said the 11-year-old.  “It’s important to recycle because all the trash can damage the earth.”

Sohrweide said participating in the yearlong service project has changed her students.

“They’re a lot more confident and independent,” she said. “It’s even showing in their schoolwork.  I can give them pretty complex things to tackle, and just the communications’ skills they’ve built with this and the problem-solving, having to do it on their own and not always having the answers, have helped them succeed academically.”

The students want to continue the recycling program and already are making plans to target another issue — homelessness in the community.

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