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Conservation efforts pay off for South Allegheny students

| Friday, Feb. 28, 2014, 2:18 p.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
South Allegheny sixth-graders, from left, Zack Martin, Faith Allan, Kennedy Pikula, Carissa Sullinger and Madi Kirkwood celebrate the surprise announcement that names their Green Dream Team as Cub category winners in Project Polar Bear.

South Allegheny students again have earned their rank as top-performing conservationists in the bi-national Project Polar Bear.

Students from across the United States and Canada compete annually in a challenge to design and carry out lasting community projects that reduce humanity's carbon footprint. And in South Allegheny's third year of participation, Polar Bears International announced on Thursday that the district claimed first place in Project Polar Bear's Cub and Great White Bears categories.

“I'm always amazed and inspired by the passion and can-do spirit of the students who compete in the contest,” said Leah Knickerbocker, assistant director of education at Polar Bears International. “They're creating pathways to a sustainable world and having fun at the same time.”

With plenty of promising entries from schools in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Ohio and Utah, Knickerbocker said South Allegheny's projects stood out because of their creativity and success in sustaining community action.

Sixth-grade science teacher Jenna Whitney, who has been a faculty sponsor of Project Polar Bear teams since South Allegheny began participating, said students have earned immeasurable support and respect for their projects.

“It's not just a win for them,” Whitney said. “It's for our whole community. We're turning our little Mon Valley town into a leader in conservation.”

The Green Dream Team, which earned the top Cub prize of $500 available to teams of five or fewer, dedicated the 2013-14 school year to energy conservation with their “1,000 Acts of Green” project.

They hosted an eco-friendly dinner for family and friends, encouraging reduction of waste through reusable plates and silverware, and of energy by using only lights and fuel for one common meal. Guests were given their plates and cloth napkins as souvenirs. The dinner served 40-50 people and produced only one bag of garbage.

The Green Dream Team sponsored a “Power Down Day,” in which 21 elementary classrooms conserved energy by using less electricity than on an average school day. Students maintained journals that detailed their conservation actions in school and at home.

“If we do small things, it can make a big change in the environment,” sixth-grader Kennedy Pikula said.

The Ice, Ice Savers, which swept the Great White Bears category for teams of 6-34 students, earned the top spot for the second consecutive year.

Last year's project put South Allegheny Elementary on the map as a drop-off point for recycling plastics. Their top prize was a $750 grant that funded a reusable grocery bag giveaway and the purchase of new recycling bins.

This year, they are reducing carbon dioxide emissions through alternative methods of transportation — a challenge that few teams addressed, Knickerbocker noted.

“By reducing those emissions, it will help reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and help with climate change,” she explained.

The Ice, Ice Savers cut vehicle transportation in half at this point in the 2013-14 school year. The number of students who arrived at sporting events and other school functions in their own family's vehicle was reduced from 86 percent to 43 percent, according to data collected via student log sheets.

“It was something we figured would catch on, because it's something every family can do,” seventh-grade teacher Bri Mayer said. “It's gone over well. Once the weather breaks and the spring sports start, it should really catch on. When people can walk to baseball and softball games, we will see even more participation.”

Seventh-grader MacKenzie Duval, a member of the Ice, Ice Savers, said it was a surreal experience to win Project Polar Bear twice, bringing another $750 grant to South Allegheny. She knew the project had winning potential, but didn't expect to surpass other schools with such a glowing review from folks at Polar Bears International.

“We tried to get everyone involved,” she said. “This wasn't something we could do on our own. We had to get the whole school involved.”

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or