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Teens Fight For New Climate Change Curriculum in Mass. Schools

Every week, more than a dozen student activists from around Massachusetts call into a Zoom meeting. Behind them are glimpses into their lives – superhero posters and hot pink bedroom walls.

“OK. So do we want to start off today's meeting with an agenda?” asked Nico Gentile, the 17-year-old climate organizer running today's meeting.

The Sandwich teen isn’t new to managing groups. Last year, Gentile helped bring together 100 students from 10 schools for the first-ever Cape and Islands Youth Climate Action Summit.

“Through that, I was able to see how beneficial and how important learning about climate change is, mostly because it kind of sparks a fuse to create action within your community,” Gentile said in an interview. “And I asked myself the question, ‘Why don't we do this more in our own schools?’”

In April, this question pushed Gentile to launch the Massachusetts Climate Education Organization (MCEO). He’s recruited students statewide, from urban areas to suburbs, from public schools and private schools.
They’re now working together to convince Massachusetts lawmakers to pass legislation that would require all of the state’s schoolchildren, from kindergarteners through 12th grade, to learn about climate change, climate justice, and environmental racism.

“I see a bit of myself in some of these high school students. There's a real passion,” said state Sen. Julian Cyr, who represents the Cape and Islands. This fall, Cyr agreed to sponsor MCEO’s climate education bill in the Massachusetts Legislature.

“What the bill will say is simply that, as part of a quality education in Massachusetts, you need to be learning about the climate emergency, about climate change, about steps you can take to mitigate your carbon footprint,” he explained.

Specifically, it would push climate change out of science classes. English, history, even math classes would study how low-income and minority communities often suffer the greatest effects of climate change and environmental degradation.

The student group is also working with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Gentile said the state doesn’t currently provide teachers with enough materials to teach students about climate change and climate justice. 

“So we're actually going to be working with them to provide new and better resources for teachers to use in their own classrooms,” he said.

In June, New Jersey became the first state to require schools to include climate change in every subject area K-through-12. MCEO wants to make Massachusetts the second.

So every week, more than a dozen members of MCEO divide up the work: recruiting new members, partnering with other youth climate organizations, and even training themselves on diversity and inclusion to make sure their internal processes are equitable and fair. 

“I think for a lot of people the full impact of what climate change will do to the planet and to humanity [hasn’t hit home],” said 18-year-old Zoe Nagasawa of Dorchester, an MCEO member. “So they don't fully understand that the climate intersects with racial justice and with economic justice.”

Nagasawa, a senior at Boston Latin School, said she’s noticed that many well-off students have learned about climate justice in their free time or in extracurricular activities, but that’s a kind of privilege that isn’t available to low-income students.

“I think it's important to elevate their voices in this fight.  And to do that, we need to make sure that these conversations are happening in curricula, and that they're mandatory and not extracurricular, so students don't have to sacrifice something else,” she said.

Now, the student group is reaching out to stakeholders like teachers’ unions and superintendent groups to build support.

The bill is set to be filed in January, but looming over the process is the fact that around 10,000 bills are filed every legislative session, and only about 8 percent of those get signed into law.

Despite the odds, Nico Gentile is determined to get it done. 

“We don't have 20 years for students to start being educated on this. We need it now. Because in 20 years, who knows where Cape Cod specifically could be. We've already seen beaches be completely eroded. And after the beaches obviously comes houses, which is horrible and crazy to think about,” he said. 

“We just don't have 20 years.”

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.