RCS’ environmental program like no other

by M. SOLLE

Several sixth-graders clean up at Frederick Meijer Gardens as part of Rockford Christian School’s environmental program.

Several sixth-graders clean up at Frederick Meijer Gardens as part of Rockford Christian School’s environmental program.

The Rockford Christian School (RCS) campus sits on over 36 acres and overlooks beautiful Lake Bella Vista. To the average person, RCS is a “typical” Rockford school—stunning facility, large campus, academically excellent. Yet something many don’t know is that RCS has an environmental focus.

RCS was the very first school in Kent County to earn the title Green School and has done so consistently since 2007. However, RCS has something that no other area school has. It has an environmental-based curriculum that is rooted in its sixth-grade classroom, but resonates throughout the entire school.

Kaylie Chiles and Ashley Solle, sixth-graders at RCS, sit inside Chiles’ survival shelter in November.

Kaylie Chiles and Ashley Solle, sixth-graders at RCS, sit inside Chiles’ survival shelter in November.

While there are other environmental programs in the area, few bring the environment to the forefront while keeping with the schools’ main mission, “to prepare students to be effective servants of Christ in contemporary society.”

At no other time in history has the environment been so important. Sixth-graders at Rockford Christian Middle School learn about creation and the environment daily through hands-on activities as well as weekly and annual off-campus trips to places like Camp Roger, Frederick Meijer Gardens, Plainfield Township Water Department, cleaning up the roadside as part of MDOT’s Adopt-a-Highway program, NASA Aeronautics Lab at Gerald R. Ford Airport, AuSable Institute in Mancelona, aboard the research vessel WG Jackson on Muskegon Lake, and camping at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. At these places they learn about recycling, water pollution and filtering, winter survival, and composting. But mostly they learn how to be better caretakers of the Earth and its resources.

Several Rockford Christian School sixth-grade students and parent volunteers pick up trash from the roadside in September.

Several Rockford Christian School sixth-grade students and parent volunteers pick up trash from the roadside in September.

Veteran teacher Don VerMerris, with over 32 years of experience in teaching, leads the RCS community on this trek of stewardship and sustainability, and is joined by fellow teacher Julie Barrett, who has been teaching six years.

The environmental classroom has impacted the student body of the whole school, trickling down to even the smallest children. A simple task, like composting food waste, becomes something even kindergarteners take part in daily with small worm compost bins placed outside of each classroom for their snack and lunch waste. Each year’s sixth-graders are responsible for “emptying” the bins, and bagging the POW (“poop of worms” as it may be) to sell it to school families for houseplant compost.

On their weekly trips to Camp Roger, sixth-graders are responsible for building their own survival shelter. This process starts at the very beginning of the school year and the shelters are usually completed before the snow flies. Students are each given a small plot of land—their God’s Green Acre (GGA)—which they measure and stake off. They must build their shelter using only the materials in their personal GGA, such as fallen tree limbs, branches, leaves, bark, etc. Students need to think ahead to what potential weather they may encounter when constructing their shelters (snow, wind, rain, etc.) and hope they put enough effort in to protect them from the elements as they will spend one afternoon a week in their shelters studying. One student’s shelter was built so well this year that a fox or coyote brought an opossum carcass into it, and left it there. At the end of the school year, students tear down their shelters and scatter the materials throughout their GGA so it looks like they were never there.

RCS sixth-grader Zac denDulk

RCS sixth-grader Zac denDulk

Some of the off-campus trips, such as AuSable and Sleeping Bear Dunes, seem a bit more fun on paper, but in reality, the sixth-graders spend their day from sun up to sundown (and beyond) learning about natural resources and their impact on our world and local environments.

“There is something unique about getting off campus—the unknown, the camaraderie, team-building. We don’t help it along; we just watch it happen. It’s a perk to an already fun trip. It’s very unifying,” said VerMerris.

Barrett echoed that and said, “For kids that are so busy and over-scheduled, to go to camp and be alone in the quiet in a shelter they built themselves for 45 minutes to an hour listening to nature, experiencing God’s creation… it’s very freeing for them.”

When asked what she enjoys most about the sixth-grade environmental program, student Kaylie Chiles said, “Going on all the field trips and to Camp Roger, but I don’t like bagging the POW.”

RCS sixth-grader Hannah Collins shows her winter survival shelter at Camp Roger.

RCS sixth-grader Hannah Collins shows her winter survival shelter at Camp Roger.

Her classmate, Zac denDulk, echoed her sentiment, but added, “Learning about the ecosystem is pretty cool too.”

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the entire program could be the impact these sixth-graders are making in their own lives. When asked what he will take with him from this year and into adulthood, denDulk said, “[Learning] how to keep the Earth clean, respect what we have, and don’t use it all up!”

Chiles said, “…and seeing God in nature, everywhere.”

RCS is located at 6060 Belding Road in Rockford. For more information on the sixth-grade environmental classroom, please contact the school office at (616) 574-6400 or online at www.grcs.org.

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