Trailerblazers for Conservation


When it comes to conservation, North Central Junior High in North Liberty, IA, blazes its own trail.

When the Water Rocks! team visited North Liberty’s seventh grade science department, we realized something exceptional was going on. Our first clue came when a school staff member popped their head in the science classroom and said, “Just so you know, the recyclers are about to come through!” Within minutes, about 25 seventh graders descended upon the room with garbage cans full of food, plastic, and milk cartons.

“We are the only school in the school district that recycles everything,” says Lindsey Downes, a seventh grade science teacher at North Liberty, “and we are the only secondary school in the district that composts.”

Downes credits her fellow North Liberty science teacher Dr. Pat Witinok with creation of the program. Witinok began by using her own prep period to wash out as many recyclable containers as she could with the help of only a few student volunteers.


Downes and Witinok set out to grow the program. But they needed tools, schedules, and support from the rest of the school. They invited their school’s Personal Development classes to adopt the recycling as a community service project. They found the space within the school to wash the recyclables. They developed their own equipment such as draining trays made from the bottoms of buckets and specially-built rolling platforms to keep the recycling cans together as a mobile unit. Witinok also applied for grant money to cover the cost of hauling away the compost, which they are unable to keep on the school’s property.

All of the work has paid off. Now, Downes and Witinok note with pride, “We are down to only one bag of trash per day for the whole school!”

This dynamic duo of Downes and Witinok started when they developed an annual creek clean up and water testing day. “Defenders of Land and Water,” as it became known, began in 2006 when Witinok and IOWATER volunteer Dave Ratliff took a small group of students out to investigate their local creek. Ratliff has enjoyed working with Downes and Witinok and feels the collaboration has been successful. He observes that while the program started with just 12 students, it now includes 240. That’s the entire seventh grade class of North Central Junior High!


Ratliff is just as proud of the lasting effect upon the students. Of the 12 original students involved with the creek clean-up, Ratliff says that five have gone on to study Environmental Law and Science. Ratliff is often stopped around town by students and parents alike who tell him how much the experience has meant to them.

Downes encourages schools to take the first step toward creating their own innovative programs, adding, “It is okay to start small.” As Downes and Witinok demonstrate, a small start can grow into something truly remarkable.

We at Water Rocks! salute the students, staff, and volunteers of North Central Junior High School for having the courage and audacity to create their own solutions!