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Connecticut students explore plastic consumption project

From clothing that ships in plastic packages to trash going out in plastic bags, businesses consume large quantities of single-use plastic, a dozen Greenwich Public School students determined during a summer project.

A cohort of soon-to-be seventh graders investigated the sustainability of Greenwich businesses, from Chase Bank to Vineyard Vines — a study that also motivated them to swap out single-use plastics for reusable options in their own lives. The project was the culmination of their six weeks of work in Horizons at Brunswick, a program that the private school runs every summer for boys in Title 1 Greenwich public schools who are performing at or below grade level.

Horizons is in its seventh year and is one 55 such programs across the nation. Toni Jones, the new superintendent of schools, checked in with the students as they gave presentations on Monday. Other administrators, including Julian Curtiss School Principal Trish McGuire and Western Middle School Principal Gordon Beinstein, were there, too.

"I haven't seen a program that operates like this," Jones said. "What makes this unique is it is the same kids every summer. That concept is really powerful."

The program also frees students and teachers from standardized tests, she said.

"Summer learning is so different," Jones said. "It is not driven by state scores. It's freeing for educators to focus on joy."

The program is open to students from New Lebanon, Hamilton Avenue, Julian Curtiss and Western. Eleven students are rising seventh graders, and about 15 students are rising fifth-graders. The program expands every year and will have rising eighth-graders next summer and rising ninth-graders, its final year, in the summer of 2021.

The oldest cohort investigated plastic consumption in town, the first time Horizons tried out the project.

"At this age, they can be critical of adults but without just pointing fingers," said Jim O'Connell, who teaches math at Brunswick's middle school. "They can talk about business practices, and what customers want."

The students quick called out Beinstein for carrying a Dunkin' Donuts iced coffee cup.

"They did a nice job," he said. "They answered all my questions and held me accountable for my cup."

About half of the middle school students attend his school, Western, including, J.P. Robledo and Anthony Colmenares, who spoke to store managers at Vineyard Vines, Chase Bank and Lilly Pulitzer for the project.

Robledo has since swapped plastic straws for metal ones in his own life. Colmenares has started refilling the plastic water bottles he uses.

Horizons has paid off for Robledo, who said he had been struggling in math before. "It got easier," he said. "I wouldn't say I'm good at math, but it got easier."

Studying sustainability was a first for Central Middle School student Jeremy Abrego. He and Richard Pesantez interviewed managers at Le Pain Quotidien, Meli-Melo, Richards and Green & Tonic.

Le Pain Quotidien had early success with paper straws, but the store ran out and temporarily switched back to plastic, he said. Most of Meli-Melo's plastic use comes from takeout and soup containers. Richards uses the most plastic, the two found, because of how the items of clothing are packaged to be shipped to the store.

"We wanted to show why it's a big problem," Abrego said.

But Abrego said he preferred last year's project, a "Shine a Light" photojournalism project in which students interviewed local businesses and took pictures.

Azael Rojas, who will be attending Turn of River School in Stamford this fall, profiled Cos Cob's newest cafe, Chocoylatte, and tried a frozen coffee and chocolate drink.

"We were pretty caffeineted," he told Jones. "And with the extra sugar, we were pretty hyped."

Rojas said he learned how the pastries are made and how to use Keynote, software designed for making presentations.

"The program has a lot of value — academically and socially and emotionally," McGuire said of Horizons. "It is such a pleasant environment with diverse programming."

She said she has seen growth among her students who attend Horizons, and, McGuire added, "it prevents the summer slide."

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