Surrounded by squawking fowl, 15-year-old Tayla Gallaud stepped gingerly on wood shavings in a coop on Sugar Roots Farm as she raked up “gross substrate,” the official-sounding word for the smelly but useful fertilizer made largely of chicken poop.

Next door in English Turn, at the artist residency A Studio in the Woods, Gallaud and her classmates later shied away from blackberry brambles in the forest as they watched a seasoned botanist pluck Chinese privet and other invasive species known to choke out native shrubs.

Spreading chicken poop and plucking privet might not seem to be obvious educational activities. But the experiences were just another Thursday for students at New Harmony High, a fledgling charter school in New Orleans that’s the first in the state to focus exclusively on training teenagers for careers and studies in coastal ecology and restoration.

“The idea behind the school is to raise a generation of young people who are dedicated to the coast of Louisiana and to preserving it,” said Lauryl Grimes, a New Harmony ninth-grade teacher. “We ask the question: What are the implications of restoring and preserving New Orleans?”

First opened in the 2018-19 school year, New Harmony is an open-enrollment school based in Mid-City with about 100 students. It is authorized by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, meaning its students can come from anywhere in the state. 

It’s currently the only school in Louisiana to focus primarily on climate change, coastal land loss and the challenges they present to local economies and ecosystems — a curriculum made possible by new statewide science standards and grant funding set aside for innovative high schools around the nation.

Conservationists say the subject matter couldn’t be more appropriate in one of the Deep South states the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency predicts will feel the worst effects of climate change in coming years.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, a quarter of the state’s wetlands — an area the size of Delaware — have disappeared into the Gulf of Mexico since the 1930s due to a double whammy of rising seas and soil subsidence. And NASA scientists say global temperatures will continue to rise for decades to come, largely due to greenhouse gases produced by people.

As the state attempts to implement a long-range Coastal Master Plan aimed at building land, reducing risk from storm surge and protecting infrastructure, scientists predict climate change will nonetheless increase flooding, reduce crop yields and harm fisheries.

“South Louisiana is at the epicenter of sea level rise, land loss and coastal restoration,” said Richie Blink, the Plaquemines Parish community outreach coordinator for Restore the Mississippi River Delta and one of the community members who helped come up with the concept for the school.

Redesigning high school

The school’s start-up money came from a $10 million grant from the XQ Institute’s Super School Project, a national initiative co-founded by Russlynn Ali, former assistant secretary of education for civil rights under President Barack Obama.

The organization has provided start-up money for 20 schools across the U.S. where students learn from redesigned curricula that might place them in a tech start-up or nonprofit — or on the front lines of Louisiana’s fragile coast.

New Harmony’s goal isn’t just for the students to learn about climate change and land loss, but also to expose them to practical solutions being implemented by residents and businesses around Louisiana.

Students regularly work side-by-side with researchers, engineers, scientists, farmers and even artists in the Mississippi River Delta.

At Sugar Roots Farm, for instance, the lesson learned from animal fecal matter is that there are sustainable and more ethical alternatives to industrial agriculture, where poop isn’t used as natural fertilizer because animals are given antibiotics to prevent sickness in poor living conditions.

And in the woods next door, students considered implications of subsidence by observing the connection between ground elevation and plant growth. As botanist David Baker pointed out, eight different species of trees disappeared between the high land near the Mississippi River levee and a quarter-mile into the forest.

The experts said that healthier farm animals mean healthier food sources for locals, and that fewer plants mean reduced natural flood protection.

“The idea is that they’re thinking about coastal restoration, but through the lenses of both science and the humanities, and about how it affects people,” said Jeff Carver, the school’s humanities director.

New approaches to science

New Harmony claims to be the only public elementary or high school in the state exclusively focused on preparing students for careers in coastal ecology, but many local schools are starting to get more creative in teaching about climate change.

That tide began to turn in Louisiana in 2017, when the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted new science standards for the first time in two decades.

Called the Next Generation Science Standards, they encourage students to study topics in depth rather than scratch the surface on a wide range of subjects. The standards focus on five core areas, including environmental science.

“It represents a sea change in how we teach and learn science in the state,” said Claire Anderson, a veteran teacher who formed the nonprofit Ripple Effect, an organization that goes into schools to teach about the effects of climate change on the local topography and infrastructure.

While educators largely praise the new standards, they don’t come without challenges: Last school year, the publication EdWeek reported that teachers were scrambling to find texts to align with the lessons they were supposed to teach.

In New Orleans, some science teachers say they regularly supplement out-of-date textbooks with Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, for instance, and data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Anderson said she’s in the process of revamping Ripple Effect so that it will offer a library of curricula around the idea of “water literacy,” or understanding living with water and how it relates to climate change in Louisiana.

In the past, her program has been used in schools overseen by the charter group KIPP, for example, to redesign a New Orleans school courtyard plagued by flooding using concepts from the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, a blueprint that offers alternative forms of water retention and drainage for the city.