Enough Is Enough! Gillispie kindergarteners limit straws on campus, other grades tackle similar conservation projects


Isn’t it amazing what moves children to take action?

Every year, the students at the Gillispie School engage in a class-wide “Big Project” to take small steps toward making the world a better place. In exploring this year’s theme, “Preserving the Coastline,” the kindergarten class was struck by an image of a sea turtle caught in a net with a plastic straw stuck in its nose.

That got their wheels turning toward reducing the number of single-use plastic straws that end up in dumps or the ocean. Starting within the school, the students collected all the single-use plastic straws to demonstrate just how many get thrown away, and convinced Head of School Alison Fleming to make straws less readily available.

Fleming said each class is given a Big Project theme at the start of the year, and decides how they want to focus that theme into a project. “The point is that children can do amazing things and are naturally problem-solvers. They want to make the planet better,” she said.

The students will showcase their projects in a school-wide exhibit for Gillispie families, Friday, April 20 at 7380 Girard Ave.

When it came to coming up with a Preserving the Coastline project for the kindergarteners, teacher Jessi Epperson brought in lifeguards from WindanSea and a local surfer to talk about what they see and find in the ocean. Chief among the littered items: straws.

“Something about the straws and their impact on the sea turtles really stuck with the kids,” Epperson said.

And she ain’t kidding!

Kindergartener Mark Stoneham warned: “Straws can hurt ocean animals because turtles think they are jellyfish and they eat them or they can get cut by them. I want to save the ocean because I like to surf and I don’t want any trash in my way.”

Classmate Olivia Kell added: “We saw a picture of a turtle caught and it had a straw in its mouth (we think she meant nose) that had cut him. I don’t want the animals to get sick.”

Kindergartener John Kauffmann worried that one day “there will be more trash than fish!”

Epperson said teachers and students researched what other schools did to reduce straw usage and decided to keep some straws in the cafeteria for those who need them, rather than have them out on the tables for students to grab.

Then they asked their schoolmates to switch to biodegradable straws or reusable metal/plastic straws.

“We used to put straws out when they got their milk or juice, plus they have the ones that come with juice boxes,” Epperson said. “So we set up bins with signs instructing students to throw their straws inside the bin rather than the trash. We collected them, cleaned them, and grouped them in sets of 10 — to make a counting activity out of it — and it turns out we collected 398 in three weeks. We showed the school in an assembly what we collected and asked students if they were willing to take the challenge and not use single-use straws for one week. We made petitions for each class and they signed them. The students wrote a giant-sized letter and stuck it to (Fleming’s) door asking her to stop making straws available.”

It worked.

Rather than go for the single-use straw, the students now bring more environmentally friendly straw options. Kindergartener Maris Kibblewhite-Sanchez advised: “There are metal straws you can keep for the rest of your life!”

Added classmate Trevor Forrest: “They have reusable straws you can use at home. I have a lot of reusable straws at home, but I don’t know how many because my mom puts them away.”

The class is taking the hundreds of discarded single-use straws and making an art piece out of it as a reminder of how many straws get thrown away and keep the commitment to reusable or recyclable straws going. “We decided to do a fish painting and a turtle painting and cover them with straws. This is to show what could happen in the ocean,” Epperson said.

Since the onset of the project, she shared, parents have reported that their children have reduced single-use plastic straws outside of school as well, adding: “They aren’t using straws at restaurants and when they go to the movies, they use a Twizzler for a straw.”

Other projects

Assistant Head of School Jon Bluestein explained the themes and projects the other grades adopted:

Grade 1 explored fresh water issues and after speaking to water department experts, made a book of water conservation tips for schoolmates.

Grade 2 engaged in two projects with a transportation theme. One class looked at autonomous vehicles and sought conclusions about whether the trend will create safer road conditions. (This was driven by their concern for animals hit by cars.)

The other class addressed distracted driving. The students did an experiment where they were asked to read things while riding a tricycle through the playground. They saw firsthand how difficult it was to “drive” while distracted and made a video about it with help from their teachers.

Grade 3 concentrated on ocean pollution. They designed engineered solutions for either keeping pollution out of storm drains (with a variety of covers) or removing trash from the ocean (with a variety of vacuum-type devices).

Grade 4 focused on hunger, exploring organizations (or individuals) barred from feeding people because of the Hep A outbreak, and looked at ways to alleviate hunger, such as free public gardens.

Grade 5 explored homelessness in San Diego. They put together care packages to be distributed at shelters, researched public policy and contacted elected representatives, and designed possible solutions, including alternative housing and mobile schools and hospitals.

Grade 6 focused their literature studies on human rights, exploring the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement. They visited the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles to further their knowledge base.