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One McDougle Elementary Student Creates Big Change

Principal Aisha Howard, at McDougle Elementary School (MES), received an unusual email from a student in mid-October. “I was wondering if I could pay for some silverware for the cafeteria,” wrote fifth grade student, Dagan Foreman, “instead of the plastic we are using. I think it would save money, and also it would be very good for the environment.”

Howard replied right away, validating the student’s request. “I think your idea is a good one,” she wrote, “but we would have to talk to the cafeteria manager to see if this is allowable.”  

Dagan speaks to MES Now, more than three months later, Foreman’s vision is a daily reality at MES. On January 23, he spent the first hour of the school day, speaking to groups of students by grade level, to explain the new initiative, the process and the importance of succeeding, as a pilot program. The new silverware was rolled out on January 28, and students at the school have learned the environmental reasons behind the switch.

“This project represents the best in education in that a student identified a problem, looked critically at the facts,  developed a solution, and was surrounded by adults who listened with open ears and assisted the student in making their vision a reality,” Dan Schnitzer, Sustainability Director said. “Student-led and adult-supported collaborations like this are the model for making positive change in the world and for instilling a passion for lifelong learning within our students.”

The backstory is almost as impressive as the culminating story. Since last summer, Foreman had been thinking about plastic and waste in the school cafeteria. When his class began to study world-changers and persuasive writing, Foreman knew exactly what change he hoped to accomplish.

In a unit taught by fifth grade teachers, Katie Nicholson and Courtney Hines, Foreman found traction and a very receptive audience. “We are using the  We the Future posters to facilitate restorative circles with our two classes, each circle focusing on one of the featured world-changers,” Nicholson said. “The people featured are from many different backgrounds and cultures, but all began to change the world at a young age.”

Nicholson said after they discussed each world-changer’s contribution, they hung their poster image on the wall, as a reminder to students that young people can make a difference, too. “We told our classes that partway through the series, they would participate in a unit where they had the opportunity to write and send persuasive letters to make a change themselves,” said Nicholson.

“When we discussed Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, ‘Earth Guardian,’ Dagan asked if he could get a jump start on his persuasive writing, because he had already been thinking over the summer about something he wanted to change,” Nicholson said. “He was concerned about the amount of waste in the lunchroom at McDougle and hoped that he could trigger a switch from disposable, plastic utensils to reusable, metal ones. He worked diligently to write his letter and then to respond to communications over the last few months.” In fact, he and Principal Howard maintained a lively email conversation as the project unfolded.

Dagan w MES cafeteria mgr “I set up a time for him to talk to Antonio Campbell, Assistant Manager in our cafeteria, and he was so open to Dagan's request,” Howard said. Manager Joe Palladino also agreed to the proposal with enthusiasm. They talked with CHCCS Director of Dining, Liz Cartano, as well as Schnitzer, and then they all met to iron out the procedures and plans.

“Dagan is the perfect example that students, even elementary students, truly are able to make a difference in the world,” Nicholson said. “It may seem like he has only impacted McDougle Elementary so far, but that change alone will greatly decrease the amount of disposable plastics being sent to the landfill. I have every hope that the rest of our students will follow his lead, not only to make it possible for this to spread to other schools, but to make their own mark on the world. I am so appreciative of what Dagan has just done for our planet and so hopeful for our future!” 

Foreman’s classmates were happy to express their support for the initiative. Isaac Ehrmann said, “I like how Dagan shared his time and effort, and how he helped the school.”

Nicholas McGurk added, “This is a really good step forward to lower material in the landfill. If a kid says we need to change something, the adults are more likely to listen.” Dagan MES

“I am super proud of Dagan and his advocacy for the environment,” Howard said. “His one email to me lead to this major change for our school, and that speaks volumes to the power of student voice.  Dagan is a true example for his peers.”