First Person

One Mom’s Mission to Get Rid of Styrofoam Trays

Although Debby Lee Cohen asked her children every day what they ate for lunch, it never occurred to her to ask them what their school lunch was served on, and so, like most New York City parents, she remained blissfully ignorant. A trip last spring to the Climate Change exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, however, changed all that.

Cohen’s 7-year old daughter stood staring at a diorama of a life-size polar bear standing on a melted island covered with trash. Then she turned around and announced that she would no longer buy school lunch in order “to save the polar bears.” And that’s how Debby Lee Cohen discovered that in New York City school lunches are served on Styrofoam trays.

We interviewed Debby Lee, a teacher at Parsons The New School for Design, to find out the health and environmental hazards of using Styrofoam and what parents and educators can do to get rid of the Styrofoam trays at their schools.

Why are you so determined to get rid of the Styrofoam trays in our schools?

Styrofoam (polystyrene) trays are the worst kept secret in NYC schools. NYC schools use 850,000 trays per day, which amounts to 153 million trays a year! They are terrible for our children’s health and for the environment. Some children eat three meals a day directly off of these trays, which are made up of the chemicals benzene and styrene. Styrene, a possible carcinogen, leaches into hot foods and has been linked to central nervous system disorders such as headaches, fatigue, depression, and hearing loss. New York State passed legislation banning toxic cleaning products in all schools. Parents should demand toxic-free school lunches as well. We should not be taking risks with our children’s health.

If that’s not bad enough, polystyrene is a petroleum-based product which stays around for centuries, if not longer, taking up an enormous amount of landfill space. Solid waste adds a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

Why then are we still using Styrofoam?

Styrofoam is cheap, extremely lightweight, and insulates well. In fact, the price per tray just came down from 4 cents to 3 cents! Most of the available alternatives, such as biodegradable sugarcane trays, cost much more. And although prices of alternative disposables are slowly coming down due to increased demand, the prices are not coming down fast enough to make the change that is needed.

How did you make the transition from an informed, angry mom to an activist?

A few weeks after I discovered our children were eating off of Styrofoam trays, I had the opportunity with my Parsons 3-D students to create am installation out of used Styrofoam trays. I was in school cafeterias pulling out hundreds of dirty trays from the trash and realized that a significant number were barely used. My initial thought was — why don’t we have a “don’t need, don’t take” policy in place. This would not only reduce the number of trays thrown out but would save the city money. For example, a student who only buys a sandwich and a drink doesn’t really need a tray.

I started making phone calls everyday, looking for some organization that was dealing with the tray issue. Although I found some amazing individuals, like parent Helen Greenberg, who were working hard to make change within their own school, there was no group working on trays as a citywide issue. I wondered if parents of children receiving free and subsidized school lunch had a clue about the harmful effects of Styrofoam trays.

I was already in discussion with another parent and web designer, Robin Perl, about creating a website about climate change. We saw the tray issue as a solvable problem.  Robin designed an effective site and gathered quotes from doctors at Mt. Sinai Medical Center and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which gave us credibility. We sent out emails and petitions to everyone we knew and our organization, Styrofoam Out of Schools (SOS), was formed.

You’ve succeeded in bringing Trayless Tuesday to our schools. Can you describe what Trayless Tuesday is and how you made it happen?

Robin Perl and I, along with fellow Parsons teacher and product designer, Jessica Corr, and parent Helen Greenberg, asked for a meeting with the Department of Education’s Eric Goldstein and other SchoolFood directors. We agreed in the meeting to find ways of reducing tray use with Jessica’s Parsons class working in a school cafeteria. Out of this class, the idea of Trayless Tuesday, a trend that was already taking place on college campuses, was born. The Department of Education agreed to try it out and as of March 2010 all city schools participate in Trayless Tuesday, which reduces the use of Styrofoam trays by 20 percent, or 850,00 trays per week.

Right now Parsons students are designing posters to support Trayless Tuesday and to improve cafeteria recycling. Unfortunately, these posters will not arrive in schools until the fall. In the meantime, we need parents and administrators to explain to staff and students what Trayless Tuesday is all about and why it’s such an important movement for our schools.

How are you working to get rid of Styrofoam trays the other four days of the week?

The first step is to use recyclable paper products on pizza days and all other days and meals that do not have a saucy component. SchoolFood is already purchasing paper boats (what looks like a paper hot dog tray but larger), which it will substitute for the Styrofoam trays for all breakfast meals and soon on pizza days as well. SchoolFood director Stephen O’Brien is dedicated to making this change happen.

With the support of SchoolFood, our legislators, and the mayor’s office, we need to begin piloting alternative trays and systems in order to find solutions which do not threaten our children’s health while also significantly reducing our carbon emissions. This will take true collaboration involving many parties. We need to bring manufacturers, cafeteria and custodial unions, the recycling mill managers, legislators, and the city’s health, education, and santation departments together to formulate a viable long-term plan.

It is also time to make the elimination of Styrofoam a national movement. By increasing demand for alternative products, we can bring the price down on a national level. NYC should partner with other large East Coast cities and counties to increase buying power.

Schools can substitute their Styrofoam trays for biodegradable sugar-cane trays or reusable, washable trays if they have a dishwasher. How many schools are no longer using Styrofoam trays? What should a parent do if they want to get rid of the Styrofoam trays at their school?

I would first encourage parents to attend their school’s Wellness Committee meeting and ask that the paper boats be used instead of Styrofoam whenever possible. If your school does not have a Wellness Committee, NYC Green Schools has information about how to get one started. The city also has guidelines for establishing a Wellness Committee at your school.

Reusable trays would be great. Currently, however, there are only 30 public schools in the city that still have dishwashers and some schools do not even have the plumbing to support a dishwasher.

Twelve schools are presently self-funding the extra cost to purchase biodegradable sugarcane trays. I strongly encourage schools that can raise the money to make the change to sugarcane trays in order to keep their children from eating off of Styrofoam. Presently, however, there is no free composting facility or pick-up available (something we should all be advocating for), so these trays go directly into sealed landfills where they do not biodegrade for a very long time.

Our website explains the steps a parent can take to get rid of Styrofoam in their school.

Is there anything else you’d like people to know?

SOS is planning on setting up pilots for a variety of alternative possibilities, including composting for all the schools that use the sugar-cane trays, providing energy-efficient or solar-powered dishwashers for reusable trays, employing personal reusable trays and cutlery, and piloting new disposable prototypes as well as system changes that suit the needs of NYC and other large urban school districts. We need volunteers, partnerships with universities and manufacturers, and funding to get these initiatives going as soon as possible! For anyone interested in joining us, we can be contacted at [email protected]

As parents and educators, we have the responsibility to teach our children to be responsible citizens (which includes reducing waste) and to provide them with school facilities and services that they will not be paying for as adults! NYC has an enormous amount of work to do in terms of reducing our waste. We should teach and empower our children by setting the best example in our schools.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to [email protected]

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.