Students Help Grade School Health

Originally written for the Mass Coalition for Occupational Safety & Health (MassCOSH) newsletter, June 9, 2016

MassCOSH Teens Lead @ Work (TL@W) peer leader Obinna Igbokwe, 17, is smart enough to realize that good air quality in school is essential to his well-being; after all, you don’t get accepted into seven ivy-league colleges without spending a lot of time in classrooms and the library. Fortunately for all of us, Igbokwe was empowered to help make a difference in the lives of hundreds of students and school staff members as part of a teen-led MassCOSH effort to improve Boston and Lynn public schools.

Igbokwe was one of the leading advocates behind Asthma Prevention through Peer Leadership and Engagement in Schools (APPLES), a new partnership between EPA’s New England office and Boston Healthy Homes and Schools Collaborative, Boston Healthy Schools Taskforce, Girls Inc., Bos ton Public Schools, John Hancock Mass. Promise Fellows program, Boston Public Health Commission, Boston Teachers’ Union, and Boston Custodial Union (Local 1952). APPLES seeks to reduce asthma attacks and improve school conditions by using one of the buildings’ biggest stakeholders – the students themselves – to take actions to improve environmental conditions.

Env Audit Walkthrough_Students

MassCOSH Teens Lead @ Work conducting an environmental health walk through of BPS Administrative Building in Dudley Square.

“All of our phones have cameras and when you train us to identify things that lead to bad air quality, all of the sudden you have a ton of extra eyes which can bring these issues to the school’s attention,” said Igbokwe. “Plus, you get to really explore a place you spend a lot of time in and feel some kind of like, ownership of it.”

This spring, TL@W trained eight peer leaders in what causes poor indoor air quality, what acerbates asthma symptoms, and what can be done to improve conditions, becoming MassCOSH’s latest team of Healthy Schools Champions. Working with MassCOSH’s Deputy Director Al Vega and Labor Environment Coordinator Tolle Graham, these eight young people used their new skills to explore the Community Academy of Science and Health and Boston Latin Academy high schools in Boston.

“I have been doing school walk-throughs for years and I am so pleased that I was finally able to do one with our peer leaders, said Graham. “I think it’s a really smart collaboration linking our young people with our healthy schools initiative.”

Taking what they learned from auditing the two school buildings, TL@W created its very own healthy schools workshop, borrowing information from the official healthy schools curriculum, but making it more interactive and engaging for youth. The teens were then able to train youth from Girls Inc, in Lynn to assess the state of their North Shore schools.

MassCOSH’s young people then went back to their own high school, to meet with their principal to discuss incorporating indoor air quality best practices in their buildings. Great ideas are springing up already from these first-of-their-kind meetings. After Peer Leader Summyyah Steele met with her principal, the administration proposed creating an environmental health club, with the principal being the advisor so that real change could happen on the ground level. Back in Brockton, Igbokwe set up a meeting with his principal that resulted in the idea of the school creating a staff training video.

Over the summer, TL@W will expand the program by training a projected group of 25 peer leaders on the Healthy Schools Champions curriculum. These newly-educated teens will fan out across greater Boston to launch creative ways to improve the schools so many work and learn in.

“We could not be happier that TL@W is actively involved in creating healthier schools,” says Graham. “Directly involving young people in making the schools a healthier place to learn and work is a game changer, it’s so great to think we are creating lifelong advocates.”

Learn more about Boston Public Schools Healthy School Environmental Initiatives.