Photo of room J101 by Eva Bruckner
Palisades Charter High School

‘Saving the world one class at a time’: Palisades Charter High School’s EAST course

Palisades Charter High School is home to a large two-story classroom in J101, which sports regular desks on the top floor while the bottom floor is lavishly furnished with computers and swivel chairs. This was not always the case; in fact, this classroom had remained abandoned for decades after the autoshop course that was originally taught there ceased to exist.

It was a $230,000 grant that funded the classroom’s transformation, given to Palisades teacher Steve Engelmann so that Palisades could have it’s very own EAST® course.

The Environmental and Spatial Technology ( EAST®) initiative is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing its programs of project-based education. Engelmann explained that the name doesn’t refer to a focus on environmental issues such as climate change, but rather the unique classroom environment it is meant to create.

This class began in 2003, and gives current students both tech and computer credits. Engelmann had originally applied for the grant because the program seemed similar to a class he had been teaching at the time, called the Mountains Program. However, soon enough he discovered that the EAST® program was actually “something completely different but also cool.”

The classroom provides space on its bottom level for this period 2 class, and its computers are equipped with useful programs for the course, ranging from Powerpoint Photoshop.

Students in EAST® come up with their own projects for the year that are meant to help a cause. Essentially, it’s a community service-based class where independence is key and students design, pursue and grade their projects themselves.

Engelmann explained, “For some kids it’s hard to figure out because they’re accustomed to being in a class like in my AP class [where] I tell them what to do and they just show up and follow the instructions. So for the first couple of weeks they’re looking at each other like ‘I don’t know what do’… some people they just jump right while other kids they take like a month or so before they start getting into the flow of things.”

The independence EAST®gives to students is one of the many desirable aspects of the class. Junior Hannah Megery, who is taking the class for a second time this year, said, “It is unlike any class I have ever taken.” Last year she created bracelets made and sold out of plastic bags, and then donated the proceeds to the Surfrider Foundation®, which protects marine life.

This year she is working on a reusable straw campaign with Whitney Neumann, Casey Neumann and Cindy Pace to counteract the damage plastic straws have on marine life and the environment. They have already created a video PSA about why plastic straws are harmful, which they plan to show to Palisades classes and are also selling reusable straws for $2 each. The money made from these sales will be donated to a nonprofit called the Plastic Pollution Coalition®.

Megery initially signed up for the class last year to fulfill a credit, but stated, “Within the first few weeks I realized the class was just what I needed – an unstructured course which allows me to think beyond a textbook and find creative solutions to the issues I care about.”

She highly recommends the course and remarked, “The class has prepared me to take on the adult world and future careers, in which I have to be very self-motivated and independent.”

This is exactly the goal that Engelmann and the EAST® initiative have for the course. To Engelmann, the structured way that most classes are taught does not prepare students for, “the world [they] are gonna graduate into [where it’s] more likely [they’re] gonna be showing up at a workplace and [their] boss doesn’t know how to do what [their] boss is asking [them] to do… and then [them] as employees and a group of workers need to figure it out.”

Engelmann believes that experience in this course is invaluable to the workplace because “kids… figure out what they want to do and [have] the time and space to figure it out.”

Furthermore, Engelmann stresses that every project in the class is worthwhile, even if its goals are not met.

“You can go ahead and try to build something work on it and nothing might ever come from it,” he explained. “You might technically fail, but the lessons you learn by doing [the project] are lessons you’re gonna take with you.”

In fact, there is an enormous amount of success in these project.

When asked if she felt that she was making a difference in this class, Senior Nicolette Khalafian answered, “Yes! All of our projects are community service based, meaning all our work goes to help others, and it’s not just limited to California. We get to extend ourselves across the nation, and even globally too. That’s definitely making a difference.”

Khalafian is currently working on project focused on sexual harassment awareness. She feels that the issue is not focused on enough at Palisades and stated, “Students need to feel comfortable enough to speak up. Voices need to be heard.”

Junior Molly Abrams also felt that she was making a difference and commented, “I love the concept of taking a class dedicated to benefiting the community. We are able to act on our creativity, passions, and interests.”

Along with Rose Walker, Abrams has been working on a feminine hygiene product drive.

Abrams explained, “Tampons, pads and bras are basic necessities for women, but they are extremely expensive. Many homeless women don’t have the luxury of buying these products.” Once these items are donated to the organization I Support the Girls®, they will be distributed to homeless women.

Ultimately, it is up to these students to decide for themselves how effective they must be at working on their project. At the end of each class period, students in EAST® grade themselves out of five points according to how well they think they did that day. While one would expect every student to always give themselves A’s no matter what, Engelmann stated there are some kids with C’s in the class because they gave themselves that grade. It’s an honest process of self-evaluation and reflection.

Engelmann explained the practicality and usefulness of this process for students owning businesses in the future, because, at the end of each day, “You gotta look hard at yourself and say ‘I can do better.’”

This class provides students not only with important life skills but with the time resources, and motivation to pursue something they care about and believe will better the world.

Junior Casey Ehrlich called the class a great opportunity and is enthusiastic about her project to restore Palisade’s Native Rain Garden. She has already authored grants to help fund this.

Sophomore Charlie Depue, who is aiming to support poor women in Venezuela by spreading their stories, stated, “What I am doing will definitely make a difference.”

As one of the 200 schools in the U.S. involved with the EAST® program, Palisades will continue to inspire students to pursue their passions as it has been for the past 14 years. Hopefully, students in this class are ending each year a little more fulfilled, with the world being a little better of a place.

Palisades will only continue to see the results and developments of the current students’ aspiring projects as the year unfolds.

*** This article was originally published on tidlinenews.com on November 29, 2017***

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