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Colfax elementary flags neighborhood's air quality

| Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, 1:06 a.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
From left, Colfax Elementary students Madalyn Byrnes, Megan Carson, and Alyssa Carlisle join teacher McCall Malecki in placing an air quality flag on a tree on Colfax Street at the Springdale school on Friday, Jan. 17, 2014.

There's a new flag flying outside Colfax Upper Elementary School. And, unlike the Stars and Stripes that flies there, it might change every school day.

The solid-colored flag attached to a tree facing Colfax Street is an indication of the air quality in the Springdale Borough school's neighborhood.

Fifth-grade students Alyssa Carlisle, 10, and Maddie Byrns and Megan Carson, both 11, put one of five triangular flags up each morning after checking the air quality condition online.

On Friday, the flag was green, meaning the air quality was “good.” They have yellow, orange, red and purple flags — each advancing color means worsening air conditions.

The Allegheny Valley elementary school is the first and, so far, only Alle-Kiski Valley public school participating in the federal Environmental Protection Agency's School Flag Program. It is being promoted locally by the Group Against Smog and Pollution, known as GASP.

The program alerts schools to the local air quality forecast and helps them to take actions to protect the health of students, especially those with asthma.

On unhealthy days, schools can use the information to adjust physical activities to help reduce exposure to air pollution while keeping students active.

Karrie Kressler, an education coordinator with GASP in Pittsburgh, gave a presentation on the air quality awareness program at the school in December. Colfax students in fifth- grade math teacher McCall Malecki's home room have been putting up a flag every school day since Dec. 12.

“It's really great for kids' health. A lot of parents and teachers really like it because it will protect their students with asthma and in general. Asthma is a big reason kids miss school these days,” Kressler said.

“Children are impacted more by poor air quality. Their lungs are still developing, and they take in more air than adults,” Kressler said. “They're outside more, they run around more, and they breathe more deeply.”

Seven schools in Southwestern Pennsylvania are participating, Kressler said. There's no cost to schools. The Southwest Pennsylvania Air Quality Partnership has provided funding for 25 schools this year, Kressler said.

The program can bring many academic subjects together, such as math, science, and history, Kressler said.

Malecki said she learned about the program at a conference on science, technology, engineering and math education, called “STEM.”

“I was looking at it from a math standpoint as a way to get real world data rather than just using numbers from a textbook,” she said. Her students “have really embraced it.”

The air quality information comes from air monitors. The ones closest to Colfax are located in Lawrenceville and Harrison, Kressler said.

While air quality action days most often happen in the summer in the Pittsburgh area, they can also occur during the winter, Kressler said. So far this month, students have put up yellow flags twice, on Jan. 9 and 10. Yellow means there may be a moderate health concern for people sensitive to air pollution.

Colfax students have been learning about Pittsburgh's environmental history, and what the air used to be like.

“I've learned a lot from it,” Byrns said. “I've learned it used to be very bad.”

Pittsburgh still ranks high for short-term and year-round particle air pollution, according to the American Lung Association. The city is in the top 10 most polluted. It used to be in the top five, Kressler said.

“Air quality around Pittsburgh is still a concern,” Kressler said. “We've come an incredibly long way. We're no longer the smoky city we used to be. We still have issues and new things to tackle.”

Malecki said her students soon will be giving a presentation on the program to their schoolmates. Once they have data for all of January, they'll chart and graph it in their math class.

“It's making us all aware of things that we're doing,” Malecki said. “I'm seeing the children go home and talk about this more. It's having a trickle-down effect.”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or

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