ByMadeleine Somerville

Feb 4, 2015

I have sensed a shift within the schooling community in the past decade. Dissatisfaction with traditional schooling methods, outdated curriculum, swelling class sizes and an almost slavish devotion to standardized testing has meant that awareness of different modes of learning have inspired drastic changes. Homeschooling, unschooling, Waldorf and Montessori – the way we learn is changing, and alternative systems of education are rising to meet these needs.

The one downside of this otherwise immensely positive shift is that this education is typically available to only those who can afford it. And listen, I love the idea of my daughter learning fractions by baking whole wheat bread, but that will never change the fact that I don’t (and probably won’t ever) have a spare $16,000 a year to pay for the privilege.

Alyssa Ramos-Reynoso working on an aquaponic system
Alyssa Ramos-Reynoso working on an aquaponic system. Image courtesy of Schools for Sustainability

For Alyssa Ramos-Reynoso, the desire to reach beyond traditional school subjects and extend this education to everyone regardless of socio-economic status has spurred her to drastically reinvent the way we learn. Combining these goals with a strong Eco-friendly sensibility means that the vibrant CEO of newly minted Schools for Sustainability stands powerfully at the intersection of education, environmentalism, and grassroots change.

In March 2015 Ramos-Reynoso and her team of over 70 volunteers will break ground on the first stages of a high school in the Dominican Republic which will emphasize an education in sustainability, in addition to traditional subjects such as math, science, and social studies. Each year, students in the four-year school will focus on learning a different aspect of sustainable living and eco-tech: Organic farming, water collection and purification, green technologies, and waste management. The school will stand on 22 acres of land located in Monte Plata, donated to the project by Cesar Fernandez, the engineer and advisor of former President Leonel Fernandez, a staunch supporter of the project. According to Ramos-Reynoso, the goal is to build a self-supporting high school which will serve to alleviate the effects of both poverty and climate change.

Have I mentioned that she’s 24 years old?

This isn’t some fleeting passion however, the first seeds of this ambitious idea were planted when Ramos-Reynoso was just 15  years old, and homeless.

“I don’t want future youth to have to endure what I went through” she explains, “Education is what always provided me with the most hope. I want to teach practical, tangible skills that will make the world a better place.”

Drawing on her own academic background in political science, international studies and sociology, Ramos-Reynoso has gathered a strong team of volunteers, mentors, advisers, and experts to help usher her idea into existence. By capitalizing on the wisdom of those who have studied education and sustainability for decades, and matching it with equal amounts of energy and enthusiasm from fellow twenty-somethings, anything is possible.

“We are go-getters” she says confidently, “No task seems too daunting or too scary.”

Dominican Republic
Dominican Republic. Image courtesy of Jeff

Ramos-Reynoso has built powerful allies within the local political landscape, a comprehensive curriculum plan, and an admirable approach to the nitty gritty details of admission requirements. The most daunting task at the moment however, is time and funding. Time because in addition to running Schools for Sustainability, Ramos-Reynoso holds a full-time job, as do most of her volunteers.

Funding, because raising enough to establish a project of this scale requires a lot of it. Construction of the school is entirely contingent upon funding, and although they plan to start small with a modest goal of twenty students in the first year, admissions will draw from all areas of the country to promote diversity of ideas and experience. Creating a residential school where students live, learn, and engage in hands-on apprenticeships is, in Ramos-Reynoso’s opinion, essential. “We don’t want what they learn in school to be undone by the pressures of poverty” she says. So each day after the students are through tackling the ambitious curriculum, they will learn how to maintain the anaerobic panels for the school’s aquaponic systems, or establish sustainable methods of agriculture, putting theory into practice every single day.

The school has been met with enthusiastic support from locals, something immensely gratifying for Ramos-Reynoso (whose family originated in the Dominican Republic)

“By far the most rewarding aspect has been meeting the community,” she says “Everyone is just brought to tears. They are all so excited because they know this is the way of the future. We are on the right track, this is what they want and need.”

Please click here to learn more about Schools for Sustainability, or to donate to the project.

Feature image courtesy of Anne Davis 773

By Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.