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Homework: Cleaning the Potomac

Like a scene from any high school classroom, members of the Student Action Committee gathered Monday at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments building to chat about their projects.

But rather than talking about typical high school assignments, the students discussed creating Metrorail train ads to promote environmental issues. Other suggestions included going to elementary schools or creating shirts with messages for a cleaner environment.

For the Student Action Committee, made up of 20 local high school students working to address the trash problem of the Potomac Watershed, the ideas for public education campaigns and their plans to help at cleanups are just the beginning.

“I just want to do what I can for the environment [and] this is a good way to it,” said Nina Dutton, a senior at School Without Walls in Northwest D.C. The committee “is a different approach and it’s an interesting opportunity because I wouldn’t otherwise be able to put signs on the Metro or go out and talk at elementary schools.”

Officially formed last month, the committee has members from 11 schools in the Metropolitan Washington area. They differ in their backgrounds, but they have a common goal — to promote environmental stewardship through public education campaigns and take part in projects that improve the region’s waterways.

Students meet monthly to gather ideas and develop projects. The committee divides itself into three groups — one working on animal and wildlife issues, another addressing global community matters and the last group working on other environmental issues.

Formed through the partnership between the Alice Ferguson Foundation and the MWCOG, the committee is part of a larger initiative to rid the Potomac Watershed of trash by 2013.

Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D), chairman of the Advisory Council for the Trash-Free Potomac Watershed Initiative, said the committee is one way that people can begin to take responsibility for the well-being of the Potomac and make long-term changes.

“It’s important that the upcoming generation play a leadership role,” Van Hollen said. “It requires us to think a little bit different, to change our behaviors in order to end our neglect of the river.”

Van Hollen was among 23 government officials from Virginia, Maryland and the District who signed a trash treaty last year with the goal of improving the Potomac Watershed. Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.) and Albert Wynn (D-Md.) also were signatories of the treaty.

Van Hollen said members of the student committee were impressive.

“I was very impressed with [the students’] degree of energy and interest in taking personal responsibility, in making changes in their community,” Van Hollen said. “Clearly this is a group of young people who want to make positive changes, and are committed to talking action.”

Tracy Bowen, executive director of the Alice Ferguson Foundation, called the amount of trash on the Potomac Watershed outrageous.

“It’s been like this for years and years,” Bowen said. “It’s a problem which my organization has documented for at least 40 years … it hasn’t gotten any better.”

Bowen said the idea to put together a student group came because younger people need to be engaged in the issue.

“They’re the ones that are inheriting the problem,” Bowen said. “I think we have to start engaging students, really get their ideas, help mentor them and find solutions with them.”

The student committee will have the opportunity to present their ideas to members of MWCOG and interact with their elected officials.

“The council of governments has numerous officials from surrounding D.C. area who want … to make the Potomac trash-free by 2013,” said Heidi Bonnaffon, an environmental planner with the MWCOG. “By having students involved, they can bring new leadership and new ideas to energize the movement.”

Members of the committee were selected through an application process and can participate in activities throughout the school year. Along with participating in the 19th Annual Potomac Watershed River Cleanup on March 31 and April 1, student members also are involved in planning for the 2nd annual Potomac Watershed Trash Summit in June.

The events are all part of the Trash-Free Potomac Initiative that includes public education, awareness campaigns and partnership with government officials.

“I think it’s important for our current leaders to hear and consider ideas that [the students] thought through,” Bowen said.

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