When students at Jackson Elementary School in Rose Park decided to help clean up a toxic waste site in their area, they never dreamed it would bring a national award from the Environmental Protection Agency signed by Ronald Reagan himself.
"I've read it through five times already," said Korey Hansen, the student who accepted it on behalf of his classmates at an award ceremony Tuesday in the National Archives Theater.As he received it from EPA Administrator Lee Thomas, nine classmates who traveled with him stood to be recognized. The nine never saw the audience applauding them because they were too busy taking pictures of Hansen receiving the award on stage.
"I keep looking at the signature," Hansen said, caressing Reagan's signature on the President's Environmental Youth Award plaque - one of ten awarded to youth groups ranging from elementary- to high school-age. The group from Jackson Elementary was among the youngest to be honored.
Hansen said, "I thought I would be scared when I got the award, but I wasn't. Everything we've done to win this went through my head instead."
And that all includes - besides helping to remove barrels of toxic waste in their neighborhood - drafting a bill to create a state Superfund to receive donations to help clean the environment, appearing at numerous long hearings about the bill at the Legislature, seeing it finally signed into law and raising more than $2,700 for the fund at school carnivals.
"They brainstormed for ideas, came up with solutions and implemented plans for action themselves," said Barbara Lewis, who oversees the Extended Learning Program at Jackson. "All I did was teach them the process. This award really is for them, because they did it themselves."
Lewis said the most valuable item students received from the whole experience "is they have a feeling of success. They know they can make a difference. It taught them reality. We can teach a lot of facts, but they translated it into real action."
EPA Administrator Thomas told students receiving awards, "We pay tribute to you who show the way by taking action . . . for searching for and coming up with real environmental solutions."
While the students' project already helped them get a taste of state politics at the Legislature and national politics from the EPA award, they will also sample international politics on Wednesday. They have been invited to be in the crowd cheering the arrival of English Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as she begins a state visit with Reagan.
"We're pretty excited about it. It should be neat," said Aaron Iverson, another student.
Iverson explained that the EPA only paid for one student and teacher to make the trip, so students had to raise the rest through projects and a donation from USPCI, a hazardous waste cleanup company.
"We're having a good time looking at all the monuments," he said.
The Washington trip isn't the first time the students have traveled to receive a national award for their work. A group also went to Ann Arbor, Mich., earlier this year to receive a Community Problem Solving Award.