June 23, 2016: Making progress on carbon reduction, more needed

Belmont Citizen-Herald: June 23, 2016

In 2009, Belmont’s Town Meeting adopted a climate action policy committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the town by 80% by the year 2050.  The first update on Belmont’s GHG emissions was just released. The town is making progress, but not nearly fast enough to meet the goals established by Town Meeting.

The recent GHG inventory shows that while local government policies and programs can play a role in driving major change in emissions reductions, consumer purchasing decisions are even more important.  Over the past six years, three major initiatives of the town’s Energy Committee have been to successfully promote adoption of an energy efficient building code in Belmont; to lead the most successful home weatherization program (Better Homes Belmont) in the commonwealth; and to lead the most successful community solarization program  (Belmont Goes Solar) in the commonwealth,  Still, Belmont lags behind where it needs to be.

According to the recent GHG inventory, “total emissions from electricity, transportation, and heating fuels are estimated to have declined by 5% from 2007 to 2014.  This is promising, though not as large a decrease as needed to be on track for achieving Belmont’s long-term goals.” The major sources of carbon dioxide emissions in Belmont are transportation (36%), electricity (29%), natural gas (21%) and fuel oil (14%).

Overall electricity usage in Belmont was “virtually identical” in 2014 to the level in 2007.  “Electricity usage stayed essentially flat” for both residential and non-residential customers, the inventory said.  While that result “may seem disappointing,” the report said, in prior years, electricity usage in Belmont had been increasing.  “Stabilization of consumption is at least a step in the right direction.”

Where the town lost ground is with transportation.  Emissions from vehicles in Belmont increased from 2007 to 2014, the GHG inventory found.  This was due largely to an increase (13%) in the number of vehicles registered in Belmont.  However, the inventory continued, “the increase in emissions due to the number of vehicles was partially offset by likely improvements in vehicle fuel efficiencies.”  Since 2007, the inventory said, there has been a substantial increase in average fuel economy for cars (from roughly 23 mpg in 2007 to roughly 28 mpg in 2014).  In addition, the inventory found, vehicles in Belmont are slightly more fuel-efficient than the state average.

Offsetting this increased fuel economy, however, is the fact that emissions from gasoline production have been increasing in recent years.  More than one-third of the emissions from the use of gasoline comes not from the tailpipe, but rather from the gasoline’s production. “The trend toward ‘dirtier’ gasoline will reduce the overall positive climate effects of increasing fuel efficiency,” the inventory warned.

“The largest areas for potential improvement through the actions of Belmont residents are afforded by the choices made when replacing vehicles and heating systems,” according to the GHG inventory.  “In both cases, even relying on currently available technology, large-scale reductions are possible.”

“Given the fact that transportation-related emissions are the single largest category of emissions in Belmont, and the very wide range of vehicle efficiencies, with electric vehicles currently available that produce as little as a fifth of the emissions per mile traveled as the least efficient gasoline vehicle, the choice of an efficient vehicle is probably the single most important and effective action residents of Belmont can take for reducing emissions.”

Making progress toward reducing carbon emissions is the bottom line in acting locally to address the global challenge of climate change.  Understanding where we are, and what steps we can each individually take to make the most difference, is critical in deciding what local actions to pursue.

June 9, 2016:Class of 2016: Pursuit of higher education

Belmont Citizen-Herald: June 16, 2016

Congratulations Belmont High class of 2016.  You’ve had a great high school career and, now, it’s time to move on to “higher education.”  What exactly does that mean?

I had lunch not long ago with the son of a friend (let me call him “Jason”).  Jason recently had graduated from college and he was worried because a job wasn’t waiting for him at the doorstep. He was questioning whether he had marketable skills to sell to an employer.  What do I have to offer, Jason asked me.

This question was raised by a person who, during the middle of his college years, decided to move to Bangkok, Thailand for a year.  On his own. Not part of a program.  Not affiliated with an institution.  Not living with friends or family. No formal training in the Thai language.

Let’s set aside your classroom education, I urged him, and look at what higher education you received.  That Thai trip was not simply an adventure.  How did you grocery shop in this new country? Where did you bank? How did you pick up the language? How did you meet friends, find your way around the city, or do any of the other activities of daily living?  I couldn’t think of skills more sought-after by an employer than those exhibited by this Thai trip: problem-solving, initiative, communication.

Jason’s experience directly relates to you as a recent BHS graduate. For most of you, higher education means attending a four year college.  Be it in engineering, social sciences, literature, or the hard sciences, the next four years will be devoted to class time with increasing specialization as you move through your collegiate career.

But, like Jason, much of your education will occur outside the classroom.  You will meet new people with different backgrounds. You will negotiate roommate “issues.” You will decide when to seek academic help and when not. You will manage your own health, your own time, your own finances.  You will organize who you play with and who you study with.

My daughter just graduated from college.  Five years in school. A couple of academic degrees.  Yet, I will forever believe that perhaps her most significant college education came not from the classroom, but from her years of participation in her university’s Dance Marathon, a student run charity that raises money each year for the Children’s Miracle Network.

Through her work with the Dance Marathon executive board, she lived the experience of setting goals, both long-term and short. She mobilized resources toward achieving those goals; planned and coordinated group endeavors; mediated internal organizational disputes; celebrated successes and weathered disappointments. She had to decide how to allocate scarce resources, including both organization money and her own time.  Does that sound like a typical employment setting? Yes, indeed.

Class of 2016, as you move forward in your educational journey, a huge part of your higher education will come not from your classrooms, but from your experiences. But beware. Amongst the considerable wisdom flowing from baseball players over the years, former Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher Vernon Law once opined that, “experience is a hard  teacher. She gives the test first and the lesson afterwards.”  I encourage you not only to be open to the tests, but to be cognizant of the lessons.

Class of 2016, your community could not be prouder of you as a Belmont High graduate.  Your Belmont education has prepared you well for the journey ahead, wherever that might lead.  Your friends, family, neighbors, indeed the entire community, wish for you not merely success and happiness, but wish for you to live an interesting and fulfilling life.

May 26, 2016: Meeting kids’ needs through high school options

Belmont Citizen-Herald: May 26, 2016

Belmont High School is moving toward the end of another spectacularly successful school year.  Academic accomplishment remains high, with graduating seniors headed toward four-year colleges.  The theatre program hit a home run with the presentation of The Laramie Project.  Athletics excelled, with the girls basketball team enthralling fans with their deep tournament run.  Music, community service, after-school clubs, even new coding classes to advance technology education.  Belmont High offers something for everyone, right?

Well, maybe not quite.

I had conversations recently with two Belmont educators about the advantages of the high school options that Belmont offers within our community.  The question I posed was not in the negative (what does Belmont High not do well), but rather in the positive (what advantages does the community receive from having more than one high school). Both educators agreed that Belmont was well-served by having these options.

Dan Richards, principal of Belmont High School, noted that education provided by public high schools involves a reflection not only of the community, but of society as a whole.  One societal norm to be reflected today, Richards said, is the expectation that things be customized. “One can go on the internet and customize jackets and shoes for individual tastes. That expectation now extends to public education as well.”

Belmont High can, to a point, teach to differentiating learners, Richards said.  One difference between Belmont and other towns, he said, is that Belmont’s public schools don’t simply talk about that as an abstract principle, but “actively embrace that notion” to guide what is done “inside the bricks” (i.e., within the school walls).  The problem, he said, is that despite best efforts, Belmont High cannot “fabricate all environments for students to thrive in.” In that sense, Belmont High cannot completely meet society’s expectations. Accordingly, having different schools that provide different education environments can only do good for the community.

Providing an opportunity for an alternative high school experience is what Belmont’s Waldorf High School offers.  According to Waldorf High Director Mara White, while many Belmont residents are not even aware of the small independent school tucked away on Lexington Ave., WHS graduated its first class in 2000 and moved to Belmont in 2004.

White speaks the same language as BHS principal Richards.  “It is evident,” she says, “that one system cannot serve the needs of every single student.  A student might thrive in one place and not in the other. A student who does very well at BHS might not flourish at Waldorf” and vice versa.

The objective of Waldorf High School is the same as any high school education. “We seek,” White says, “to help students develop the intellectual capacity to think critically and to maneuver in society and with each other.”  Belmont High and Waldorf seek to “teach the same skill sets to students,” White emphasizes.

The size of the Waldorf is the “most obvious difference” between the two schools, White says. “Whether it is sports or music or drama, Waldorf provides the opportunity to participate. You may not be the best soccer player, but you  can still experience being part of a team and engaging in competition.”  In addition, “students do not receive an individualized education program, but the school attends to individualized needs.”

Obviously, Belmont High and Waldorf High are not the only two high schools serving Belmont residents. They do, however, illustrate an important lesson. As we approach the completion of another school year, additional celebration is merited by the fact that Belmont supports a variety of local opportunities to provide a successful education to our kids, whatever their needs.  Not all communities can say that.