Learning reusable skills through recycling


John McCallum

Special education teacher Joni Kent talks about recycling with Pathways students left to right Jasmine Jarms, DJ Collins-Kile, Megan Humphrey (back) and Melissa Daniels.

Steven Bouck, one of Joni Kent’s Pathways students helping pilot a round, wheeled recycling bin down a hallway at Cheney Middle School looked back with a smile and offered a piece of advice.

“Here’s your headline, ‘Cheney Middle School does recycling for the world,’” the young boy said.

Maybe not the world – yet. But Kent’s program for special needs students certainly does hard work taking care of the school’s reuse efforts, something begun last year with just paper and expanded this year to include not only recycling everything possible but also collecting compost – which might end up in local flower and vegetable gardens, on lawns or even putting greens.

It’s also efforts that teach all students, keep some of the school’s costs down, and is hoped may one day be district wide.

Setting up skills

This is the first year for Pathways. Kent said the program is for special needs students who are not at a resource room level, but not quite at the self-contained classroom level either.

“It’s geared more towards kids that need a more life-skilled based curriculum,” she said. “So there’s math, science, reading and social studies.”

The program also operates at Westwood Middle School, but does so differently than at CMS, Kent said. Paraprofessional Heather Kelton works with sixth-grade students while Kent does the rest, and all three grades spend three periods together.

Kent decided to take on the recycling program and expand it this year as a way to teach her students, not only about science and technology but also life skills. The school received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to help pay for some of the costs, and Kent set out contacting area haulers to help.

Waste Management provided blue recycling bins for the classrooms while Sunshine Disposal supplied an outdoor compost bin. After distributing the blue bins, Kent said they ran out before taking care of each classroom and ended up modifying some gray trashcans for the purpose.

“We went to ask for more (blue bins) but they said they were out of funding so we’re glad we got what we could,” she said.

Waste Management also provided signs for the school’s lunchroom area giving instructions on item disposal. The school designated one classroom for Pathways as a collection and sorting room, and after a little instruction, the students set off.

Collect and separate

The Pathways students hit the classrooms twice a week, hauling a round, wheeled bin down each of the school’s three wings. They quietly go into each classroom, grab the bins, empty them and return them.

“We try to be as undisruptive as we can,” Kelton said.

Once done, the recycling is taken to the classroom where Kelton and Kent assist the students in separating the materials and putting them in designated plastic black trash bags. The two instructors usually come in early in the morning and do additional separation of items they don’t want the students to handle.

Once collected the recycled materials head to Cheney Recycling, with the exception of aluminum cans which are taken to a facility in Spokane.

The composting is done differently. The students rotate assignments during lunchtime to stand by the food disposal bins and make sure their fellow students know where to dispose of the various items. Once lunch is finished, the bags are taken to the compost bin and picked up once a week by Sunshine.

“I think it’s good for the planet,” Pathways student Logan Davis said while eating his lunch and waiting to take up his compost duty. “More recycling means less garbage. When we recycle, we break it down.”

Making a difference

Middle school teachers, staff and administrators would agree with Davis’s assessments, particularly about more recycling meaning less garbage. Where once the garbage haulers were stopping by three times a week to empty very full dumpsters, middle school principal Mike Stark said they now make just one visit, saving the school approximately $200 a month in disposal costs.

“It’s a lot of work, but the kids take a lot of pride in it,” Stark said.

Composting is much the same. Kent said before they started, 6-8 bags of lunchtime food scraps were being thrown out daily. Now it’s one, with the rest going in the compost bin – resulting in an eye-opening moment for the Pathways students and the rest of the student body.

“It was like, ‘Look at all the food we’re throwing away,’” Kelton said. “Now the kids are more conscientious about the food they’re eating and what they’re throwing away.”

“It’s like anything else, it takes some training, it takes some practice but if you watch now, they kids are pretty good, the know where everything goes,” Stark added.

That compost isn’t going away though. Some of it may be coming back through Sunshine Disposal’s commercial composting program.

According to information from Sunshine, the organic material is hauled to a processing facility in Royal City, Wash. where it undergoes a six-step process. After being ground up, the compost is put in piles and watered for 12 weeks to break it down biologically, then placed in windrows for final decomposition.

The windrows are watered and turned, at least five times, while maintaining a constant 131-degree temperature for 15 days to reduce any pathogens to below strict federal regulatory thresholds. It’s then screened to separate the compost from larger residual materials, put back into windrows for optimal moisture levels and shipped for resale as fertilizer.

“It’s the full loop where the food is going back into the earth,” Sunshine Disposal director of business development Marc Rickey said.

Some of that will also be coming back to the middle school in the form of an outdoor classroom project science teacher Tammie Schrader said she has planned for her students next month.

Bigger goals

Kent, Kelton and Stark all said they hope the Pathways recycling efforts eventually lead to a similar district-wide program someday. For now, it’s helping the school in a number of areas, including efforts to become a Green School under the Washington Green Schools program.

Currently, the middle school is active in the program, one of 229 schools participating statewide and 10 in Spokane County. They have two more parts to complete before moving up to a Level 1.

“We get a flag,” Kent said laughing when asked about the school’s reward.

John McCallum

Cheney Middle School paraprofessional Heather Kelton helps Pathways student Joseph Bromley separate recycle material.

More seriously, she said the Green Schools program, along with Pathways’s efforts are all about a larger picture of repaying the community’s trust, shown through passing bonds to build three new schools, by being environmentally conscious. Besides recycling and composting, the Pathways students also collect aluminum can pull tabs, taking these to the Ronald McDonald House in Spokane as a fundraiser for that organization, and save box tops, which also provides a bit of revenue.

Most importantly the Pathways students are learning, learning about science through the materials in recycling and technology by touring Waste Management’s Waste to Energy plant. They’re also learning life skills, Kent said, which many parents said they practice at home.

And like Davis, they’ve learned it can be fun.

“Think of it as a game, a board game,” he said, with rules and patterns needing to be followed. “Like I said before, it helps the planet.”

John McCallum can be reached at


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