Each year, 9th graders at MELS, our Network School in Forest Hills, learn about the impact humans have on the environment in a class called Living Environment. As a part of this class, students complete fieldwork, or relevant study with experts in a field, at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which is located in the Rockaways and managed by the National Park Service. Students learn from park rangers about the various ecosystems the refuge supports.
After completing their fieldwork at the refuge, the students return to their classrooms to research and develop innovative processes or machines that will decrease the impact humans have on the natural world.
Traditionally, students then return to the Wildlife Refuge to present their final projects to the park rangers who inspired them, as well as their parents and community members. However, this year, because of the government shutdown and the suspension of all National Parks services, the Wildlife Refuge has been closed.
Students were devastated to learn that they would not be able to present at the Refuge’s Visitors Center. But rather than give up, the students decided to take action. One student, Naomi, said, “We all sat down and thought of ideas of how to make an impact and let everybody know that this is wrong.” With two days to plan, the students and their teachers pulled together a student-led rally: they called the press, created signs, and wrote their speeches.
On January 17th, 120 students and their teachers stood together in front of the shuttered Jamaica Bay Refuge Visitors Center holding signs that read “Stop the Shutdown, Let us Learn,” and “Save Our Parks.” Several students, who had planned to present their final projects delivered rousing speeches instead to the gathered crowd of teachers, parents, and news media.
Declared 9th grader Hannah: “Not only are we disappointed, but our community is disappointed as well. The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge has given us opportunities, new learning, and a chance to express our carefully chosen ideas. Jamaica Bay and its rangers provided our school with texts and other material that we were able to focus our learning on. Jamaica Bay didn’t only educate students, but people in the community could learn about the unique ecosystems Jamaica Bay has to offer at the Visitor Center, such as freshwater ponds, woodlands, an estuary, and a pollinating garden. However, this shutdown didn’t only shut down national parks, but shut down our chance to spread light on the ignorance towards environmental issues to a larger community outside MELS.”
After the final student speech, the students let fly with a chorus of chants, including “Don’t shut down my education!”
After the rally, the students felt empowered. “I felt extremely proud of my peers who were speaking because they were the voice of the whole school,” said student Vanessa.
Ella, another 9th grader added, “A lot of people would think a lot of teenagers don’t care about [the shutdown], that it’s not directly affecting them, but for us, specifically, it was, and we wanted to get that out and wanted it to really get to people and maybe even spark some other people to stand up, reach out, and take action.”
“I feel really powerful. I feel like I wanna do it again. I want to speak out,” concluded Naomi.
Not every 9th grader chose to participate in the rally. Those students instead wrote papers explaining why and offering alternative suggestions for action.
As one student wrote, “The rally is meant to raise awareness of the impact the shutdown is having on our learning but since everyone has their own opinions on the shutdown and what should be done, our “rally” will end up seeming really disorganized [because in] the interviews or the posters some will make it about their opinion on Trump himself, which is not what the rally is supposed to be about.”
Whether or not the students attended the rally, the attitude at the school was clear: according to these students, the government shutdown didn’t only affect federal workers—including researchers, scientists, and parks employees—but it also affected public school students like them whose learning is deeply tied to the community around them.