Hazardous waste to most parents probably means their kids' cluttered bedrooms.
But to a socially conscious group of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students, it had a broader meaning. And they set out to rid their neighborhood of the toxic stuff.For their relentless efforts, the pupils of Jackson Elementary School in northwest Salt Lake City this week will receive national recognition.
Toting bags of optimism, determination and excitement, eight students from the school left Saturday for Ann Harbor, Mich., to claim the National Community Problem Solving Award, presented annually by a non-profit educational group. Three schools are picked each year - a high school, junior high and elementary.
It's not surprising that the local school won top honors.
Eighteen months ago, the Jackson students, who are in a special program for the gifted and academically talented, were studying groundwater issues - only to discover that a barrel site near their school had been leaking hazardous waste.
"Before the study began I used to dump paint thinner next to the raspberry bush and still feed the fruit to my kids," the student's teacher Barbara Lewis said. "I knew nothing about hazardous waste."
She learned lots about battling toxicities - not to mention beating the bureaucracy - when her students started agitating with the EPA, local health departments, and Salt Lake City Palmer DePaulis.
The upshot: The barrels, a literal sore spot in the neighborhood for 40 years, were removed. An EPA investigation into water and soil contamination is continuing.
The students, caught up with success, didn't cease their efforts.
"I remember one day one of the kids saying, `Let's clean up all the hazardous waste in the state,' " Lewis said. "That was my proudest moment because I didn't laugh. I just said, `Good. How are you going to do that?' "
In a child's mind a white elephant sale would raise all the money necessary to cure the world's ills. So they held one. The proceeds amounted to $468.22.
Lewis said that after deciding that amount might only make one square inch of land clean, the students sent out 550 letters to businesses and civic organizations and raised an additional $2,700. They then persuaded legislators to pass a bill directing the Division of Environmental Health to set up a fund and use such voluntary contributions only for the cleanup of hazardous-waste sites.
The now-seasoned lobbyists are seeking a match from the federal Superfund Reauthorization program, which would increase their earnings to $27,000.
Meanwhile, the students will bask in the limelight in Michigan where they will receive the award, carry the American flag, make a 20-minute presentation on their project before an audience of more than 1,000, and compete in the Future Problem Solving competition in which student delegates from across the country will vie for top honors. Utah will be represented by students from three other Salt Lake schools, as well.
The Jackson students will also teach participants a song, written by Lewis and a local song writer to celebrate their project.
Tapes of the song, adopted as the national theme for the organization, will be on sale through the Future Problem Solving of America Program.
"It's incredible what they have done - just one thing after another, one step at a time, to achieve this super thing," said Ramona White, a parent who accompanied Lewis and the eight students on the five-day trip - paid by the young veteran fund raisers - April Chacon, Christina Lingbloom, Tiffany Rommel, Heather Hilliard, Lauren Evans, Jason Prince, Pete Barton and Craig Dixon.
They sponsored everything from popcorn sales to yo-yo demonstrations to rummage sales to pay for the trip. (or some, it was their first airplane flight.)
Chalk up another triumph for the students of Jackson Elementary, who have taught adults a good lesson: Kids, the future of America, can make a difference too.