Students at West Hartford’s King Philip Middle School appealed a decision to have a tree outside the school cut down, and here’s what happened.
King Philip Middle School, completed in 1955 on 42 acres with playing fields and walking paths has had a bit of civic excitement this fall.
In late September, the eighth graders of Sally Nyhan’s social studies classes (and others throughout the eighth grade student body) questioned why the town would be cutting down a decades-old oak tree at the south entrance of KP. The tree in question greets students and staff each day as they enter the building’s rear entrance, provides shade to south side classroom windows, and as one student learned has been a natural “fixture” some teachers have known for 30 years.
During afternoon dismissal, Sally Nyhan saw eighth grade students crowded at the base of the two-story oak tree. Nyhan noticed the students’ anger, and saw a huge orange “X” spray painted on the tree. As the students were reading the posted sign stating that a hearing was available, Nyhan said, “Hey, we could appeal this. This is democracy in action and we’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
The next morning in Erin Rauseo’s first period eighth grade health class, Rauseo asked her students to look out their second story window at the beautiful tree. “There was a bit of energy in the room,” said Rauseo. “The kids and I shared how important we felt that tree made our classroom feel. You could feel some leaders begin to emerge.” The day progressed and in the space of two days students gathered approximately 200 signatures. Nyhan emailed her colleagues, students talked with each other, and soon all three grades were represented with their signatures on a petition that became known as “Save the Tree.”
John Phillips, West Hartford’s tree warden, scheduled a hearing “at the tree” during the eighth grade Learning Lab so students could attend and participate in the tree removal hearing. Six eighth grade students took a leadership role meeting with Nyhan, to develop and clarify their talking points and learn to voice their passion and beliefs as they did their civic duty to save a tree at school. The students learned a hearing is an official town meeting complete with recorded notes and the opportunity to express opinions and voice concerns. They had a week to prepare.
The students learned West Hartford has a tree warden whose job is to keep the public safe through “care and control” of trees and shrubs on public grounds. But why this tree at KP? The answer: King Philip has a roof-top solar panel installation and the tree blocks some solar panels.
KP’s solar panel roof installation, brought online in December 2019, produces enough power for 43 typical homes. The town’s website states West Hartford currently has 12 solar photovoltaic projects installed and others in development. These solar projects “total nearly 1 MW (megawatts) and produce over 1 million kWh (kilowatts) of electricity a year.” The electricity produced by these solar arrays helps the town meet its annual clean energy commitments.
KP’s eighth grade students understand about solar energy … but they still had something to say about saving the tree.
Sadie Leibin, eighth grade student shared her experience. “I don’t walk past the tree to catch a bus,” says Sadie, “but when I saw the energy of all the kids signing that petition it felt exciting.” Sadie stepped up and had the courage to use her voice. “Not many adults listen to kids, but with this tree petition we had a chance because the adults were listening this time. That was like a trigger in my brain telling me ‘you CAN make a difference.’ Speak to them I thought, you can do something. So I got involved. My friend and I both got involved,” Sadie explained.
Tyson Fulmer, another eighth grade student, focused on the environment and what others were saying about the tree and its impact on people. “My friends and I hang out under that tree and we need more nature around us, ” Tyson explained. “It felt exciting to know that I was making a difference and helping the environment.” Tyson spoke with teachers and staff who have walked past the tree for 20 years and sixth graders who have been at KP only two weeks. “It’s important to people,” Tyson said. “The environment needs to be protected. I felt determined after talking to people and I knew I was saving nature.”
Nyhan wondered, “Maybe a social activist will come from this experience.” She shared that the most exciting part was helping students see democracy in action so students could act. KP students had the opportunity to speak with town officials and actively participate in a protest voicing their opinions. Nyhan added, ”Our students demonstrated their belief in their convictions: they wanted to save the tree, they had the passion and the commitment to improve their community.”
Joy K. Wright, KP’s lead learner and Principal was immensely encouraged by KP’s eighth graders’ leadership. “I’m quite proud of our eighth graders.They demonstrated their passion, their sense of community, and took the next step: action. They spoke up and energized all of our students and we are very proud.”
On Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, Nyhan got the email notification on the hearing’s outcome. The verdict for the KP tree? Saved. A determination was made that trimming would avoid shading solar panels AND allow the town to keep the tree.
“I had a fantastic experience listening to both the Town’s Energy Conservation Specialist and the student representatives of King Philip,” said Phillips, the tree warden. “The decision was a difficult one. Finding a balance with the passion of young advocates and the pragmatic decision making process of skilled professionals was a challenge. We all want to advocate for a better, more sustainable future of our finite resources.
“I hope the students of King Philip have learned that the government process works and it is healthy for groups to have two different opinions. Civil conversations that the hearing process provided are always the best course of action. Your students did it right and I am proud of them. They were excellent speaking advocates and listeners,” Phillips said.
Congratulations to the students at KP who participated, signed a petition and those who spoke out and saved the tree.
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