Joe Phelan didn’t know what to expect.
It was a chilly October Friday and Phelan, the superintendent of schools for the Rhinebeck (New York) Central School District, had just arrived at the Omega Institute for the 2019 Drawdown Learn Conference. He was among dozens of Hudson Valley students, teachers, residents, and others who had been invited by the Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL) to attend.
“I felt like a fish out of water because I didn’t know anything,” Phelan said. “I was there to learn.”
After a weekend of studying a solutions-based approach to climate change, Phelan left with a new perspective on an issue that has been capturing the attention of an increasing number of his students, their parents, and their teachers. Indeed, Phelan said that at times, he felt awkward as he listened to comments from some teachers.
“I was hearing from the teachers that ‘my superintendent doesn’t care. There’s no awareness of this. No support,’” he said.
So Phelan had an idea. Every month or so, the superintendents of Dutchess County’s 13 public school districts meet in Poughkeepsie. At a recent meeting, Phelan proposed they hold one of their upcoming gatherings at Omega Institute.
“I told them about the experience I had,” Phelan said. “But I can’t encapsulate that whole weekend in a 90-minute meeting. I said, ‘You guys need to learn more because I learned so much and realized how far behind the curve we are.’”
Youth Climate Strikes Demand Action
The ongoing, youth-led climate strikes, Phelan said, only add to the need for school leaders to take action.
"These climate strikes, [the school superintendents] are all dealing with that," he said. "If only on that level, they can’t ignore what is going on. They don’t know enough about it just like I don’t know enough about it yet. But I am learning."
Much to his surprise, not one of his peers objected to his meeting proposal.
The potential impact is considerable. Dutchess County’s public school districts account for nearly 39,000 students, according to the state Education Department. What’s more, the county’s demographics are uncommonly diverse. The superintendents represent children who hail from inner cities, suburbia, and even rural farmland. The school districts range in size from one with fewer than 700 students enrolled in prekindergarten through 12th grade, to one with more than 10,000.
"The best I can do is work with other people who know more than I do to raise awareness," Phelan said.
Efforts to promote sustainability and climate education standards are growing. The newest national science education standards, published in 2013, include a recommendation that climate change be taught as early as middle school. Mexico has amended its constitution to mandate environmental education. And in November, Italy announced its public schools would require students in every grade to study climate change and sustainability.
Dorna Schroeter is a Rhinebeck resident and a retired coordinator with the Putnam-Northern Westchester BOCES Center for Environmental Education. She also attended the Drawdown Learn Conference and is working with Phelan to plan the March meeting.
“We owe Omega a debt of action because Omega gave Rhinebeck these passes [to Drawdown Learn],” she said. “The idea was, with this information, what are we going to do? To me, it has to be action. Not just learning. We have to come back and say we are going to use what we learned to make a difference, to make changes.”
© 2020 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies