Greening a K-12 School System

Scarsdale’s sustainability drive leads to board policies, embedded instruction and collaboration with outsiders by STEVE FRANTZ

Al Gore changed my life. I had just retired after a 40-year career as a teacher and elementary principal in Scarsdale, N.Y. Two weeks later I received a phone call from Scarsdale’s superintendent, Michael McGill. He said he had recently viewed Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” and wanted to know whether I was interested in leading Scarsdale’s green initiative.

McGill and I discussed his aspirations for the initiative. While I was interested in the position, I needed to be convinced the superintendent was committed and would support the effort over the long run.

Steven FrantzSteve Frantz has led efforts in sustainability education in the Scarsdale Public Schools in Scarsdale, N.Y.

Now, almost four years later, we are much greener and more sustainable than we were, but we have a long way to go to reach our goals. Perhaps our successes and challenges will be helpful to other school system leaders as they try to do their best to promote a sustainable world for future generations.

A School Context
How do we define sustainability, especially in the context of a school system’s mission? Broad agreement seems to exist for the traditional definition developed by the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission in 1987: Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Early on in Scarsdale, a district with 4,700 students in suburban Westchester County, N.Y., we referred to our work as the “green initiative.” Others used different words when referring to it: global warming, environmental education, reduction of greenhouse gases, resource conservation and energy independence. We now use the terms “sustainability” and “green initiative” interchangeably.

After agreeing to lead the initiative, I set out to learn more about greening a K-12 school system. Web searches proved unhelpful, as I was unable to pinpoint districts that were pursuing green initiatives, though several exciting references related to higher education institutions’ efforts.

I found an excellent resource in the Children’s Environmental Literacy Foundation and its executive director, Katie Ginsberg. Conveniently, the group is based near my district in Westchester County, N.Y. The foundation is a recommended resource for anyone trying to understand sustainability and education. In our first meeting, -Ginsberg suggested a reading list, organizations, websites and other resources that would provide me with background information.

I had a knowledgeable and forceful green advocate in the assistant principal at Scarsdale Middle School, Duncan Wilson. A Canadian, Wilson attended Upper Canada College, a green K-12 school in Toronto. He already had started important green programs at his school.

Abiding Interest
One of our district’s earliest procedural steps was to invite all interested teachers and administrators to discuss goals and short-term action steps. More than 40 showed up — a clear sign genuine interest in sustainability existed in the school system. Forty is too many for a steering committee, so we decided in the first year to meet with groups of teachers and administrators in each of our seven schools. This enabled me to share resources and my preliminary plans and to learn what relevant activities were occurring at the school and classroom levels.

Two other experiences shaped our district’s understanding of sustainability and work during that first year. Scarsdale was invited by the Children’s Environmental Literacy Foundation to be part of an Environmental Protection Agency grant on developing school leadership for sustainability. Three of us from Scarsdale spent an intensive training weekend at Eastern Michigan University working with three other school districts, university staff and Susan Santone, executive director of Creative Change Educational Solutions.

The second valuable experience was attending a Yale University conference for colleges and universities in the Northeast that were collaborating on green initiatives. The guest speaker, James Gustave Speth, former White House adviser and dean of Yale Law School, left me even more passionate about the importance of sustainability education at the K-12 level.

We spent the rest of the year in Scarsdale assessing sustainability education activities that individual teachers had embedded in their programs. I met with school-based staff to gauge their current thinking about the green initiative. If they viewed this as important, how should it be included in the curriculum? What issues or conflicts did the initiative generate for them?

By the end of the year, broad agreement existed that as an educational institution our responsibility is to teach students about sustainability in the liberal arts tradition. Our students need to know the science, math, economics, politics and justice of climate change issues. They need the habits of mind, problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills and creativity necessary to promote sustainability. Stewardship of the planet is their responsibility, too.

Community Connection
We divided our work in Scarsdale into three areas: (1) campus facilities, grounds, transportation and business; (2) curriculum, instruction and staff development; and (3) community attitudes and behaviors. Today these three areas have evolved into campus, curriculum and community.

Naturally, many topics overlap and are part of more than one area. For example, recycling belongs to all three. Our school maintenance program must provide appropriate bins for students and teachers to use, and our custodial staff must make certain the bins are emptied into appropriate dumpsters outside for village pickup. The science of recycling must be included in our curriculum and systematically reinforced at different levels. Students need to develop behaviors and habits that reflect the importance of recycling to a sustainable future.

As I met with various parties, we developed a list of topics that required more study before we could develop an action plan for the Scarsdale Public Schools. We included the topics in a sustainability report for the board of education.

Board Action
As a consumer of energy and other resources, the school district produces enormous amounts of carbon dioxide emissions that flow into the atmosphere. We also produce thousands of pounds of waste that end in landfills. It is our responsibility to manage our facilities, grounds and transportation systems as economically and environmentally efficiently as possible.

One of our first actions was to ask teachers, administrators, students and custodians to conserve as much energy as possible — by turning off lights in empty rooms, unplugging computers and other machines when not in use, and lowering thermostats in winter. We measured our carbon footprint and developed goals for reduction. In June 2007, almost a year after we began the green initiative, the Scarsdale Board of Education unanimously passed the following resolution:

As part of the global community and as educators of future leaders and global citizens, the Scarsdale Public Schools will encourage and show leadership in using ecologically sustainable practices that will help preserve our environment for current and future generations. The District will develop conservation measures, educational programs, and other efforts aimed at promoting behavior that is consistent with an ethic of sustainability.

The Schools also recognize our impact on the environment, and we understand that we must take a systematic approach to avoid or limit negative impacts. We hereby adopt as a goal the reduction of our greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent below the District’s 1990-91 emissions level by the year 2020.

Measuring the school district’s carbon footprint and passing a board resolution setting specific reduction goals were critically important steps. The following year the school district issued an RFP for reducing energy use. The school board ultimately contracted with Johnson Controls for $7 million, which is being paid with the savings from electricity, natural gas and fuel oil expenses. These energy audits and related measures are important actions for school districts with older buildings. In addition to being environmentally friendly, they probably will lower energy costs.

Other actions were taken to reduce our carbon footprint. Additional recycling bins were placed in classrooms, lunchrooms and hallways. Student green clubs labeled the bins and encouraged other students to sort their waste appropriately. Several schools instituted “no plastic” weeks or months to encourage students to re-use lunch bags and water bottles. A few schools sponsored “waste-free” lunches or reduced-waste lunches. Students weighed each day’s waste destined for the landfill and the commingled waste. They compared the trial week’s weight with a standard week.

One school formed a Recycling Rangers Club. These students volunteer their lunch period once or twice a week to make certain other students discard waste in proper bins. On pasta days, the students rinse the containers because the county requires that all commingles brought to their facility must be relatively clean. Our middle school experimented with composting food waste, but we need to improve and expand that program.

Transportation to and from school each day unnecessarily yields thousands of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Scarsdale considered reducing the distance required for bus eligibility. The obvious value of reducing the distance would be the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the many cars required to transport students. Obviously that plan requires purchasing additional buses, an expense the school district cannot afford in this economy. We have encouraged carpooling. We also have asked students to ride the bus if eligible and not use private-car transportation.

We applied for an Environmental Protection Agency grant worth $300,000 to retrofit our buses to reduce greenhouse emissions and other fumes potentially harmful to student health. The grant was approved recently, so we look forward to completing this project. The school district is replacing its small fleet of other vehicles with hybrids as they come up for renewal.

Several schools have started Walking School Bus programs. One day a week, weather permitting, students walk to school together from each neighborhood with a parent, teacher or principal serving as “drivers.” We’re not sure how much CO2 we are preventing, but the activity builds great community spirit and promotes exercise. In the long run, we hope most students within a reasonable distance will walk or bicycle to school.

Embedded Content
Today’s students require a much more sophisticated understanding of sustainability issues than do their parents and teachers. I’m reminded of the T-shirt slogans worn by many young people in Copenhagen during last December’s climate treaty negotiations, “I’ll be here in 50 years …” Just what exactly should they learn and how should they learn it? There are probably multiple responses to those questions, and the answers will likely vary among districts.

Major obstacles confront sustainability education in most public school systems. The curriculum of sustainability is interdisciplinary, and most secondary schools are organized by disciplines. We also were confronted with issues of a packed curriculum. Teachers have told me not enough time is available to teach the required curriculum. They ask, “What do I discard to make room for sustainability topics?”

State and Advanced Placement exams, as well as traditional college-prep, graduation and other requirements, leave little room for new content. This difficulty is compounded by mandated testing programs. Just how important is the content if it does not appear on a mandated test? To date, New York, like most states, has not adequately addressed sustainability education. Without widely respected and accepted standards, a school system typically must develop its own programs.

This development requires an early decision to embed sustainability content in existing curricula or build a new K-12 strand of sustainability content. We decided almost immediately to embed the content in current programs. We also decided to make participation optional; teachers would volunteer to participate in staff development programs and rewrite existing curricula to include more sustainability content.

We worked with Katie Ginsberg of the Children’s Environmental Literacy Foundation to organize a summer sustainability institute through our Scarsdale Teachers Institute. Susan Santone of Creative Change Educational Solutions was one of the principal instructors. More than 30 Scarsdale teachers received an introduction to expert thinking about sustainability through books, articles, film clips and websites. Elementary, middle and high school lessons were shared for discussions of best practice. Teachers learned how to embed the content in their existing programs. Teachers were given time to rewrite lessons and share revisions with other teachers. Teachers left feeling empowered and impassioned about including sustainability topics in their programs.

We have now conducted three summer institutes and a multitude of other courses on sustainability topics. These staff development experiences have been the catalyst for valuable and exciting sustainability programs throughout the Scarsdale district.

The downside is these programs are not available to all students. The superintendent has now asked us to develop sustainability education standards for all K-12 students. We are beginning that work. We also need to develop programs that help our students become sustainability leaders in science, economics, politics, law, medicine, arts and all other disciplines.

Other Successes
The Scarsdale school board has been supportive throughout. In the initiative’s second year, board members allocated money to establish organic garden projects at each elementary school. The executive director of Greenleaf Gardens, a local firm, has shared his expertise while teaching students the value of organic, sustainable gardening. The board also funded green projects for students at each school. The middle school and high school have used some of their funds to establish organic gardens. Last summer, the garden at Scarsdale High School yielded more than 600 pounds of produce for the county’s food bank.

Several schools used their money to retrofit school watercoolers, which has generated a better taste, and the coolers can be used to fill reusable water bottles.

Students now use fewer plastic bottles. Some schools purchased and planted trees on their grounds. Others bought books and other teaching resources. These funds support school green clubs, drama productions with sustainability themes, environmental field days, nature trail development on school property, outside consultants or assembly programs, and teacher participation at conferences. The money serves as a catalyst for developing creative sustainability programs.

Scarsdale Public Schools has partnered with the town government and town organizations to sponsor Sustainable Scarsdale Days. These Saturday programs, open to the community, showcase student work on sustainability, local vendors of environmentally friendly products and services, and alternative-energy businesses. The events also feature workshops for residents on steps they can take to conserve energy, reduce their carbon footprints, save money, manage water resources, and maintain their homes and property in a more responsible manner.

As we move forward, we want to develop more community projects. Working together locally, we can make a difference globally.

Steve Frantz is the sustainability education coordinator in the Scarsdale Public Schools in Scarsdale, N.Y. E-mail: Stevenf941@aol.com