Behind Rocky Heights Middle School sits a fenced garden with raised flowerbeds. Around the corner is a coop with 12 plump chickens. An Earth Tub, a large circular machine used for composting, is just steps away.
“We are teaching our kids to be stewards of the environment,” Principal Celine Wicks said, standing beside the tub filled with dirt and leftover kitchen materials.
Since implementing its ESTEM program three years ago, Rocky Heights in Highlands Ranch has made strides in sustainability while creating a sense of community among its kids.
Students harvest fruits and vegetables from the garden for the cafeteria and for culinary classes. For a small donation, they give fresh eggs to community members. They turn kitchen scraps into mulch using the Earth Tub.
Eighth-grader Madelyn Klinkerman loves the ESTEM program, she said.
“It builds community,” she said, “helps our environment, increases our knowledge about our world and helps us to educate others.”
ESTEM — which stands for environment, science, technology, engineering and math — is the brainchild of three teachers at the school: Rodney Graham, Cam Randolph and Tammy Melanson, who now works at the district level.
Graham, a language arts teacher, thought of the idea after reading “Last Child in the Woods,” a book about the divide between kids and the environment. He noticed a lack of environmental awareness in the classroom, he said.
“I felt like the school should be doing more with environmental education,” Graham said. “It’s a passion and concern of mine.”
Graham taught the pilot year of the program, which has grown into three classes with more than 60 kids, along with a garden club component. The program is project-based with an emphasis on the outdoors. When the weather permits, students spend time in the garden and chicken coop. They utilize the Earth Tub, donated by the school district last year, for mulch in the garden and around the school.
ESTEM is shaping the future while educating younger grades, said Brandon Bernsdorf, a seventh-grader in ESTEM.
“The program makes Earth more sustainable, preserves wildlife and makes our lives better and easier,” the student said.
The sustainability practices extend beyond the ESTEM program — Rocky Heights as a whole has adapted an eco-friendly approach.
Culinary students use local and organic ingredients. Green recycle bins line the cafeteria. Lights in the common area and emergency lights that are on 24 hours a day will soon be replaced with LED lighting.
The goal is to have all of the lights replaced next year, said lead custodian Daren Brown.
“We do a lot,” said Brown, an employee of 10 years. “We give a lot to our kids and to the community.”