TAMPA – Sharon Cutler packs her class at Lawton Chiles Elementary School with cages full of lizards, toads and all manner of amphibians.
“It’s really fun,” said 10-year-old Yannick Van Der Laan, a fifth-grader. “We have a lot of pets we take care of. I have the bearded dragons. We feed (them) crickets.”
It’s fun with a purpose for Cutler, who has taught in Hillsborough County schools for 27 years and at Chiles for 10. And it has earned her nomination as one of three teacher finalists for a statewide award that honors educators and schools for environmental efforts.
“Conservation is important to me,” Cutler said. “It’s something we need to instill in our children so they can keep the world alive.”
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection offers the Green School Awards annually, in partnership with the Florida Department of Education, the Florida Department of Health and Sustainable Florida, a nonprofit organization. Since 2009, applicants have generated $66 million in cost savings.
In addition to Cutler’s nomination, Chiles Elementary – on Tampa Palms Boulevard in New Tampa – is a finalist in the school category. It’s the second time for both teacher and school.
Finalists are students, teachers, classrooms, schools and school districts who are doing something to improve environmental literacy, school health and sustainability, said Greg Ira, director of environmental education for the Department of Environmental Protection.
Green School Award winners in each category will be announced at an awards ceremony from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Orlando.
Cutler chooses to teach in a portable classroom because it is easier to feed the animals there on the weekends.
In addition to the classroom “pets,” she keeps a chicken coop outside, as well as an extensive garden with plants and herbs where students can do research, small ponds for tortoises, and a barrel that catches rain water for Cutler and her students to use watering the plants.
Cutler’s conservation efforts reach beyond her classes to the entire student body of nearly 800 children.
Each classroom and hallway, as well as the cafeteria, has it’s own recycling bin. Students and employees recycle 2,500 pounds of materials per week.
“All the kids know what to do,” Principal Teresa Evans said. “We recycle everything except the leftover food.”
A few yards away from Cutler’s portable are massive solar panels, which power the electrical outlets in four classrooms.
She spearheaded the effort to land the array of solar panels, worth about $90,000. Tampa Electric installed them for free last school year at Chiles Elementary, one of just a few in the district with this feature.
So far, the students have been intrigued with the panels, Cutler said.
“I hope they learn from the experiences here that there are alternatives to fossil fuels, and that conservation is really important and we need to look to the future,” Cutler said.
Because of the solar panels, the school now serves as an emergency shelter for hurricanes and other weather events.
“It’s a really good way to use clean, fresh energy,” said 10-year-old Hannah Barrios, a fifth-grader in Cutler’s class. “I kind of wish I could have them at home.”
Last year, Cutler helped Yannick and some of his classmates build foot-long solar cars.
“It was really fun,” Yannick said. “We built them by hand. The hard part was getting the sun perfect.”
Cutler still has more energy-saving ideas.
“I would love to get a volunteer to recycle or reclaim our air conditioning condensation so we can use it for watering the grounds,” she said.