On the Road With the Water Sentinels: Part 4
We arrive at Whites Creek High School in the hilly, wooded outskirts of Nashville at 10am on a Wednesday morning. After being buzzed in by security, we are issued visitors passes with our photo on them and escorted through a series of freshly-painted cinder block hallways to the science classroom of Dr. Cliff Cockerham.
A Brooklyn native, educated at Cornell and Georgetown Universities, Cockerham—who is also a volunteer Water Sentinel with the Sierra Club—began teaching at Whites Creek in 2009 after the previously under-performing school completely overhauled its faculty and administration and reorganized under the Fresh Start Program.
"This is a school that for decades had a history of failure and downward-trending scores," he says. "Now it's headed in the opposite direction." Part of reorganizing the school was breaking it up into small learning communities. Cockerham teaches in the Academy of Public Service.
"We're creating a school where people's vision of what they want to do with their lives has something to do with serving the world and making it a better place," he says. "This is the only school in Nashville—maybe the state—where you can major in alternative energy. Having a science focus on environmental issues is a no-brainer. It's the No.1 way to make a difference because it's the No.1 problem we face. If we don't solve the global warming problem, nothing else matters."
The student body at White's Creek, part of the Nashville public school system, is more than 90 percent African American, and nearly all are considered "at-risk" youth. Many, Cockerham tells us, do not live with even one parent, let alone two.
Attired in a white lab coat with a clutch of pens and markers stuffed into his breast pocket, Cockerham is preparing his students for an environmental science exam two days away. He presides over the class like a drill sergeant, pacing the classroom, calling out rapid-fire questions and addressing the students using the appellation "Mr." or "Miss".
One student, apparently unprepared for class, bristles at Cockerham's upbraiding. Cockerham tells the young man if he isn't inclined to do the work he's free to leave, but he'll fail the class. The student pushes his chair back from the table and walks out of the room. Cockerham locks the door behind him and continues with his lesson.
Later, after class has let out, Cockerham lets down his guard and a different side from the no-nonsense taskmaster emerges. He explains that he instills such discipline in the classroom because many students have little in the way of a disciplinary figure in their lives outside of school. Occasionally his throat catches as he talks about his students.
"This is a hard place to teach," he admits, "but it's exciting to give people opportunities they wouldn't have had otherwise. You see kids who were headed for trouble ending up going to college instead. You can see kids moving from lack of direction to having some faith in themselves, some faith in the world, some faith in the idea that they can make a difference."
Outside of his work at Whites Creek School, Cockerham is a Sierra Club volunteer who chairs the conservation and environmental justice committees for the Middle Tennessee Group. He also runs the student Water Sentinels Program in middle Tennessee.
Today Cockerham is taking students outside to White's Creek, which runs nearby the school, to collect water samples for analysis back in the school lab.
"What is it we want to do when we're monitoring a stream?" he asks one student.
"Miss Prim, what does this measure?" he asks another student as he hands her a water-quality monitoring device.
"What does that tell you if it's a low PH?" he asks yet another. "It's acidic—very good."
"You have nitrogen in you. I have nitrogen. We all have nitrogen," he explains. "But there's extra nitrogen in a lot of this water. Where do you think the extra nitrogen is coming from? Something you put in the water here is going to end up in the Cumberland, which then ends up in the Mississippi, and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. The water cycle is all connected."
En route back to the school, he stops to show us the organic gardens and composting operation he has helped students create at the school.
I ask a student named Cameron, who has recently become involved with the Water Sentinels, what it means to him to learn about water, do his own testing, and help spread the word about the importance of clean water.
"It's an opportunity for me to do new things, to get out and do hands-on activities instead of reading it out of a book," he says. "This way I actually acquire my own knowledge, and then I'm able to tell other people how exciting it was and how I'd love to do it again."
"Cameron's really interesting," Cockerham tells us after school has let out for the day. "He has grabbed hold of wanting to make a difference. He was one of our delegates at the Tennessee Sustainability Summit, and he volunteered to become our squad leader for the Water Sentinels project."
Cockerham recalls the first time he sat down with Cameron to talk about college. "He said this was a waste of time because he wasn't going to go to college—he couldn't go to college. He didn't know he could get scholarships. He thought it was just a question of how much money his family had, and they didn't have much. And now, he sees a reason to keep at it."
Cockerham pauses, his eyes glistening, then collects himself.
"That's why it's worth being here."