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Portland Public Schools leaders say student activism is 'exactly what's needed' after students demand climate justice education

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Students fill the seats in the auditorim of the Blanchard Education Service District building holding signs urging the board to fully implement a climate change education resolution that was adopted in 2016.Three years ago, Sriya Chinnam didn't think she'd be sitting before the Portland school board lobbying for climate change education. That's because, in 2016, the Portland Public Schools board adopted Resolution 5272, which laid out a plan for implementing climate change literacy in schools.

But three years later, students and staff say the district has done little to implement the resolution.

They made that clear Tuesday, May 14, when students from high schools around Portland staged a sit-in for climate justice at the PPS district office.

Chinnam addressed the PPS board, calling the topic, "a social justice issue, a racial justice issue, and a quality of life issue."PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Sriya Chinnam addresses Portland Public Schools directors about climate change literacy Tuesday, May 14. Seated next to her is Kaiya Yonamine, who also spoke.

"We are facing a global crisis," she told the board. "We don't have time to waste. We should not be at our district office demanding something that should have been done three years ago."

Prior to the sit-in, students delivered a list of demands from the board and district surrounding climate change education. The list included three specific requests:

• PPS must honor its commitments to support robust climate justice professional development.

• Climate justice education must be incorporated into all PPS classes.

• PPS must support the participation of PPS students in climate justice work in the school district.

In conjunction with the list of demands, the letter states that PPS needs to offer climate justice teaching materials on the web; to foster "climate literacy," while supporting a student climate justice committee; and allow teachers and building administrators to attend and participate in in-service activities for climate justice.

"We demand that Portland Public Schools honor its commitments," the letter from students states. "This resolution was not a suggestion. It was not a proposal. It was a directive."

Students wore red and gathered in front of the district before the start of a 6 p.m. meeting, giving speeches, singing songs and making signs. The sit-in came roughly two months after students across Portland staged a walkout to protest inaction and a lack of meaningful climate change education, amid global efforts to combat global warming and the extinction of some species of animals.

Teacher Tim Swinehart broke ground in 2016, developing one of the only climate justice classes in the district, and possibly the nation.

Swinehart broke out an acoustic guitar Tuesday, asking students to sing along with him, before addressing the PPS board.

"This implementation plan you're receiving tonight is bold, it's comprehensive, and it demands the district commit substantial energy and funds to climate justice education," Swinehart told the school board. "In other words, it's exactly what we need, and what students deserve in the midst of a planetary climate emergency. It's also what sets us up to become the national leaders in this that I think we can be."

Student organizer Bella Klosterman, a senior at Lincoln High School, helped organize Tuesday's sit-in.

The Lincoln High School senior said she feels lucky to have gotten "adequate, correct, and relevant education" surrounding environmental justice and sustainability. She wants all PPS students to have access to that same education.

"I've become really involved with the climate justice movement, and specifically with this resolution and climate justice education," she said Tuesday. "It's been so important for me because I obviously would not be here today if I didn't learn about these issues somehow, and I have teachers I can thank, but really when it comes down to it, I hold certain privilege with learning about it and I feel like students all over should have the privilege of learning about these issues because it's pressing, it's relevant, and it's going to affect all of us."

Board member Mike Rosen was instrumental in helping craft Resolution 5272 in 2016. He thanked students Tuesday, "for having the courage (to) come here tonight and demand what's needed."

Rosen said he plans to help push the resolution along, but Rosen's board term is set to expire next month and he is not running for re-election.

"You're going to have to deal with what my generation bequeathed you, and for that I am sorry," Board Chair Rita Moore told students Tuesday.

Prior to Tuesday's sit-in, PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero drafted a letter to students addressing their concerns.

"At PPS, under my leadership and new administration, we are committed to doing better on this important topic," Guerrero stated in a letter to student leaders. He thanked students Tuesday for showing up, saying their actions "are exactly the kind of youth leadership on real world issues that we as educators always hope for," and calling the young activists "a generation of climate warriors to save us all."

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