The Greening of Curricula: Seed and Weed the Landscape


As leaders in business and other fields are reshaping their landscapes through renewable energy, green buildings and other initiatives, some school districts are ensuring that the attention to sustainability does not devolve into just another fad.

These districts, in a variety of geographic and socioeconomic settings, see greening as a context for effective and lasting innovation inside the classroom.

Susan SantoneSusan Santone

The sustainability efforts in these places share some characteristics, as well as some challenges. Having worked with each of these school systems, I believe they share what I consider four big ideas of sustainability-based innovation.

Beyond Environment
•  Big Idea 1: Sustainability is more than the environment. Sustainability leaders understand the “S” word through a “3 E’s” framework: the environment, the economy and social equity. In this definition, sustainability serves as an integrated lens for viewing the world. For educators, this reality of environmental, economic and social interdependence means that citizens (students) must think and solve problems from a systems perspective — one that integrates science, economics, civics and more.

This framework is driving a new generation of interdisciplinary curricula, often organized around themes, such as energy, food systems or community revitalization — topics that, not incidentally, reflect core green economy sectors. Leading sustainability districts use such themes to redesign units, courses and districtwide curriculum maps.

Administrators in the Yonkers, N.Y., Public Schools, an urban district serving 25,000 students from more than 100 countries, are reorganizing K-5 curriculum maps to include a substantial interdisciplinary unit focused on community sustainability. Familiar elementary units such as Johnny Appleseed or plants will be reframed to explore, in age-appropriate ways, interdisciplinary topics deeply rooted in students’ own communities: the nature of place, human-environmental interdependence, biological and cultural diversity, local-global connections, and civic roles and responsibilities in creating healthy, safe communities.

“In an ever-flattening global community, we have to take care of home and take care of nature,” says Judith A. Mayer, Yonkers’ assistant director of curriculum and instruction. “We hope that by creating a community of practice, we will be creating a community of environmental stewardship, as well.”

Interdisciplinary instruction also provides a platform for rigorous course makeovers at the high school level. In Jackson County, Mich., the Mathematics and Science Center, part of the intermediate school district, is supporting three high schools to develop interdisciplinary courses focused on sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, redevelopment and the control of invasive species. These topics offer the rigor and relevance educators cry out for, and reflect green economy sectors that are widely seen as the key for reviving Michigan’s beleaguered economy.

“We’re trying to put out literate students who are going to be our future leaders,” says Megan Schrauben, director of the Mathematics and Science Center. “We want students to learn to think. If we’re not showing how knowledge in different subjects relates and how you have to assimilate information to make an informed decision — or even vote — then we’re not doing our job.”

As the first courses reach classrooms in the 2010-11 school year, administrators and teachers are working to ensure the efforts meet achievement goals and are sustained.

A Wider Reach
•  Big Idea 2: The classroom is embedded in the campus and larger community. Successful sustainability leaders create positive ties to their larger communities. Take the Proctor, Minn., Public Schools, a district serving 2,200 students on the banks of Lake Superior. For almost a decade, public school leaders have forged active relationships with the university and community organizations, resulting in rich learning opportunities — a new wind turbine, collaboration with renewable-energy experts, and real-world environmental monitoring in school forests and local streams.

To ensure these initiatives drive academic achievement and community engagement, the district also implemented professional development and strategic planning. Results include a student-led sustainability fair attracting 2,000 community members and integration of sustainability ideas into existing literacy and math initiatives.

As with the work in Yonkers, Proctor’s efforts extend beyond science. The high school marketing team won 1st place in an international competition with an analysis of the regional green building market.

Reframing Maps
•  Big Idea 3: Sustainability must be tied to broader district goals. Administrators know how easy it is for something new like sustainability to become just another trend. To avoid this, the most successful school districts we’ve worked with have integrated sustainability into larger district plans for achievement, professional development and other targets.

In Scarsdale, N.Y., the school district has developed a strategic plan for changes in curriculum, student achievement, campus greening and school-community relations. (See story, page 19.) The school board adopted a plan to reduce the district’s carbon emissions 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Action steps include retrofitting all buildings, a no-idling policy for vehicles and creation of school gardens.

In terms of instruction, the district is reframing curriculum maps to incorporate environmental, economic and social connections. Over the past four years, more than 50 teachers from all disciplines have participated in intensive professional development culminating in curriculum redesign. And, like the work in Proctor, Minn., Scarsdale’s efforts also have been strengthened through partnerships with regional organizations, including the Children’s Environmental Literacy Foundation and the Green Schools Coalition of Westchester.

The Driver’s Seat
•  Big Idea 4: Support and invest in teachers.
Sustainability education fundamentally aims to improve teaching and learning. The leaders we’ve worked with know this means supporting teachers with effective and ongoing professional development. Such efforts go beyond one-time speakers to immerse teachers in rich learning experiences that are embedded in existing venues such as summer institutes and professional learning communities.

Successful programs combine several factors — on-site workshops that teach and model interdisciplinary and effective pedagogy, as well as a guided process (with curriculum exemplars) for instructional redesign and ongoing support and evaluation as teachers bring their work into the classroom. Professional learning communities enable teachers to share their work, evaluate it and develop strategies to improve. In this way, teachers become leaders and drivers of effective change.

At Hartland High School in southeast Michigan, teacher leadership has driven the revision of traditional auto mechanics and construction courses to focus on biofuels and green building.
“It was 100 percent the teachers’ initiative,” says Debra Petish, Hartland’s assistant principal. “If they didn’t want it, it wouldn’t have happened.”

With support from the county-level Livingston Educational Service Agency, in Howell, Mich., the courses will use the school’s new renewable-energy equipment, obtained as part of multicounty grant from the state’s public service commission. This initiative, like the others, shows the importance of connecting change from the “top down” and the “bottom up.”

Rise or Fall
As inspiring as these initiatives are, they are not without challenges. Like any major change, sustainability rises or falls around familiar factors — staff buy-in, district leadership, community support and budgets. The stark divisions among disciplines, reflected in standards and often-restrictive schedules, are an additional barrier. Increasing accountability demands and rapidly shifting landscapes for policy and technology only add to school districts’ challenges.

So how can sustainability be effective and sustained? Only when it becomes deeply rooted in a district’s vision and structures — when it becomes business as usual. This means a model for change that impacts policy, leadership, resource allocation, curriculum, instruction, assessment and community engagement.

“We have to change the culture,” noted one administrator.

Susan Santone is executive director of Creative Change Educational Solutions in Ypsilanti, Mich. E-mail: The author acknowledges the support of the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation.