By GWEN OREL
As middle school students filed into Renaissance at Rand Middle School on Friday, Jan. 17, a film played showing Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Most of the assembly was devoted to King, with speeches, music, dance and video.
Principal Dr. Joseph Putrino spoke about character and how this month the school had been looking at character and “how the types of things that you do reflect upon how other people see you.”
Finally, just as the assembly was about to close, he introduced eighth-grader Lucy Osterberg.
Osterberg’s vision is to replace the disposable water bottles kids often use with refillable aluminum containers.
She started a GoFundMe, and it succeeded: on Wednesday, Jan. 22, free refillable bottles were given out to every student in the school.
The bottles are blue, with the Renaissance logo on them in white. When she was introduced, her classmates cheered and shrieked.
On Thursday, Jan. 23, students carrying the bottle received a raffle ticket. The winners
received prizes, given out on Friday.
“This is another example of how we are responsible for one another, and our actions impact each other. And one person in this room has just given us a message. It’s not a bottle of water, it’s a message. And she’s making sure that you receive this message. By her positive action, by the content of her action, I’m sure we can make some judgments about her character,” he told the school.
When Osterberg came to Putrino last year, he was in his first year as principal at Renaissance, though he has been working in education in the district since 2001, serving as a teacher, and principal of Northeast Elementary and Glenfield Middle School.
One of the things Putrino did on joining Renaissance as principal was work on positive messaging in all areas. Last year was the first time the school ever held an assembly to celebrate Martin Luther King Day. And Renaissance is a Restorative Justice pilot school. Putrino described Restorative Justice as a “philosophical approach towards decision making.” The program, which has its roots in the detention system, is “based on relationships in the community.” If people know one another, they are less likely to make poor decisions about one another, he explained. Every day during homeroom at Renaissance, students have a “check in” question about how they are feeling, and then something individual, such as “What’s your favorite dessert?”
“And it seems silly, but when someone says ‘Oh, I love strawberry shortcake, too,’ then I know something about you. And now that I have that bond, I’m more likely not to make fun of you or, you know, bump in the hallway or have an opinion about you.” On Fridays, the check-ins take 45 minutes instead of 20.
This month, the questions have been about character, and how posted content can impact people, Putrino said. Montclair High School, Edgemont Elementary School, and Renaissance are pilot schools in Restorative Justice.
Renaissance also has built-in community service, Putrino said: every Friday, three classrooms of kids participate and are taken to a place to do public service. It could be cleaning up around town. It could be writing cards for the troops. The school chooses the physical locations, though it is open to suggestions for community service from students as well.
And Montclair overall is becoming more conservationist, he said: at a faculty breakfast with the PTA, the PTA brought wooden utensils. Osterberg’s energy feeds off of the current climate.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Osterberg told Montclair Local she came up with the idea to have reusable water bottles last spring, when she walked past a school table filled with hundreds of plastic bottles and snacks to take in to the room while students were having state testing.
“I thought it was unnecessary. There are refillable water stations on every floor, and we are allowed to leave for water. It’s so unnecessary. If they’re handing out water bottles, why can’t everyone have a water bottle to fill it up?” she said. She wondered how to get everyone a water bottle.
At 13, Osterberg has not been an environmental activist before, but her family makes an effort to recycle plastic, she said. Her name may be familiar to Montclair Local readers because she’s twice been a winner in Montclair Film’s Emerging Filmmaker competition: in 2018, her short documentary about women in the first Women’s March on Washington in January 2017 won the grand prize in the Documentary category. In 2019, she won the grand prize for narrative in the Storytellers division with her short comedy/horror film “Baking for Zombies.” Osterberg said she might want to own a bakery, as an adult.
She approached Putrino with the idea about the water bottles last spring, and he encouraged her to wait until the autumn so it could get momentum.
That is exactly what happened.
Putrino put Osterburg in touch with the PTA. They sent out links. And not long ago, Osterburg’s mother told Putrino, “I have 300 water bottles in my garage. When can I give them out?” The GoFundMe had raised $1,055.
The logo inverts the usual Renaissance logo, which is white on blue. Osterberg herself designed the logo.
“My mom’s friend has customized things,” Osterberg explained. “We wanted it to be made in the U.S., not in China. I liked that they were smaller, so could be carried around.” The bottles also have a clip on top to attach to a backpack.
Putrino said that Osterberg’s initiative is part of a moment when young people have become “empowered over the last couple of years to be advocates. You have young adults speaking out for climate change. The day the high school did the rally [climate strike], a lot of our kids wanted to go outside and be a part of that,” Putrino said.
“Global warming is happening,” Osterberg said. “If everybody tries to do their part, we can make a difference.”
According to her internet research, if one person uses a reusable bottle for a year, it adds up to (on average) 83 plastic bottles not used. So if all 300 people at Renaissance uses their new bottles that’s 25,000 plastic bottles not used, she continued.
“I wanted to make a difference. This was a good solution.”