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CAPS students in Porterville spearhead sustainability, transforming their community and forging pathways to green careers nationwide.

In the small, predominantly Hispanic working-class town of Porterville, California, a group of high school students is spearheading a green revolution, thanks to a pioneering partnership between the local school district and the nonprofit Climate Action Pathways for Schools (CAPS). This initiative is not only fostering environmental awareness among the youth but also offering them a chance to earn while learning to reduce carbon footprints in their schools and the broader community.

Jesika Gonzalez, an 18-year-old participant in the program, has transformed from a disenchanted teenager to a young woman who appreciates the sustainability efforts unfolding in her hometown. She is part of a cohort being prepared for the green jobs of the future, a trend that is gaining traction in various states across the US. The CAPS initiative, which began with the vision of local solar engineer Bill Kelly, has grown under the stewardship of executive director Kirk Anne Taylor, who harbors ambitions to take the model far beyond solar power and across the state.

The students, who earn California’s minimum wage of $15.50 an hour, undertake a range of activities from conducting detailed energy audits of school buildings to organizing bike rodeos to encourage more students to walk or cycle to school. Their efforts have not only fostered a culture of environmental consciousness but have also translated into substantial savings for the district, to the tune of $850,000 on a $2.9 million energy budget over a few years.

Despite being a small group of just 18 students this year, CAPS is making significant strides, with 100% of its recent participants heading to college, a rate markedly higher than their peers not involved in the program. The initiative stands as a beacon of hope at a time when the pandemic has wreaked havoc on public school performance, especially in working-class districts like Porterville.

CAPS is part of a growing trend. Like similar programs in Missouri, Illinois, Maine, Mississippi, and New York City, CAPS is using the career-technical education, or CTE, model to prepare young people for the green jobs of the future before they get out of high school.

The program is also helping to shape community attitudes towards climate change, with students influencing their families' perspectives. Gonzalez, for instance, has earned her father's pride through her involvement in CAPS, despite his initial skepticism about climate change.

Looking ahead, the students have ambitious paths carved out, with plans to pursue further studies in fields such as environmental science and management, and public health with a focus on climate change. The initiative is receiving accolades and drawing visitors from various states, keen to replicate its success.

According to Grist, the CAPS program is not just about preparing students for green jobs; it is also about empowering them to find hyperlocal solutions to climate issues, as emphasized by Jocelyn Gee, head of community growth for the Green Jobs Board. It is facilitating the decarbonization of public schools, a significant step given that schools account for a large number of publicly owned buildings and have substantial energy costs.

As CAPS continues to grow, securing substantial grants for various environmental upgrades and expansions, it stands as a testament to the power of community-driven, grassroots initiatives in driving sustainable change. The students, through their tangible, "boots on the ground" efforts, are not only learning to navigate the green job market but are also nurturing a sense of hope and a belief in their ability to make a difference in the fight against climate change. The program, which is set to expand to other districts in California, represents a confluence of education, environmental stewardship, and community engagement, offering a blueprint for nurturing the next generation of green leaders.

Eunice is a sustainability writer whose passion is sharing accessible eco-friendly practices with GreenCitizen's global readership. She enjoys birdwatching during her downtime, often deriving inspiration from nature's resilience. An enthusiastic cyclist, she is also an ardent advocate of eco-friendly transport.

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