Behavioral Change for Environmental Sustainability

Type: Article
Topics: District & School Operations, School Administrator Magazine

April 01, 2024

Strategic priorities for schools’ energy efficiency and savings that skirt the politics of climate change

When Drew Patrick, superintendent of the Scarsdale Public Schools in Westchester County, N.Y., took the helm of the school district about a year ago, one of his priorities was to engage stakeholders in initiatives designed to improve the district’s environmental sustainability. Inheriting aged facilities that were energy inefficient, Patrick wanted to expedite the district’s transition to greater energy efficiency to reduce costs and demonstrate a concrete commitment to sustainability.

Part of the work in the 4,700-student district began with a partnership with Dallas-based Cenergistic, an energy conservation company that focuses on providing comprehensive energy management programs for institutions, including public schools. Over the past several years, the district’s infrastructure projects have ranged from replacing roofs and boilers to construction and interior renovation of an elementary school.

Patrick says his district’s facilities team has benefited from working with an outside partner that has “identified opportunities for improvement while equipping our own staff with deeper knowledge and more resources.” Within the first six months, he says he has “already seen over $56,000 in energy cost avoidance.”

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Behavior-Oriented Resources for Sustainability

“To pursue sustainability,” says the Environmental Protection Agency, “is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.” In a school district, the work involves reducing the environmental impact of facilities and operations through creating high-performance structures and improving the energy conservation of existing buildings.

In 2022, a bi-partisan federal commitment to improving school infrastructure included $500 million in grants to schools through the Renew America’s Schools Act. While structural changes may produce savings, more work is being done to educate students, staff and community members using the facilities, often assisted by outside organizations focused on changing behavior and improving structural efficiencies. These are a few organizations.

Cenergistic. This is a professional services company that uses the approach of “people-process-technology.” The firm does not sell equipment. Instead, its program optimizes existing systems by making sure the system is running correctly, extending equipment life and maximizing savings through efficiency.

The company provides an energy specialist, funded through savings, who works alongside district maintenance and custodial teams and helps with sustainability initiatives for teachers and students. Participating districts have unlimited access to professional engineers and HVAC and boiler specialists. The company uses proprietary technology that provides the district with data to drive decisions about energy expenditure.

Once the program’s fees are covered by energy reduction cost savings, the district has access to new funds, which can be significant.

This is Planet Ed. A component of the Energy and Environment Program of the Aspen Institute, this program provides educators with tools to engage students to take action to find climate solutions and environmental justice.

The strategy includes two phases:

(1)  convening the K-12 Climate Action Commission that provides educational policy recommendations for local, state and federal level officials; and

(2)  mobilizing the education sector with instructional initiatives with the early years sector and children’s media.

This is Planet Ed empowers school districts to identify and initiate programs and curriculum. The Climate Media 4 Kids project, partnering with The Nature Conservancy, develops curricular content that can be incorporated into K-12 instruction.

One World. This is a nonprofit dedicated to working with K-12 schools to develop the global competencies today’s youth need to address the challenges of climate change over their lifetimes.

One World uses a four-part series of curricula to help K-12 schools embrace this challenge. The studies begin by framing the magnitude of the challenges, then suggest how students can act to measure and reduce their schools’ and their individual carbon footprint. Learners then take actions beyond the classroom, employing social entrepreneurship to develop solutions to climate change. The last part uses experts via a series of webinars that include the demonstration of cutting-edge learning tools developed by MIT, such as the End Roads simulation and Probable Futures.

One World’s curricula can be delivered into classrooms or be used to support a school’s environmental clubs.

— Ken Mitchell

Covert Sustainability Measures

When Mitch became superintendent of a mid-sized school district in the Northeast, he learned from unhappy residents during his entry tour that the school district’s athletic complexes at the middle and high school campuses kept their field lights on well past the end of an event. He also heard complaints that ceiling lights remained on in all classrooms in an entire building while cleaning crews worked in a few at a time and that buses, running under capacity, were making “door-to-door” courtesy stops instead of stopping at centralized locations.

When Mitch (who asked to be identified with a pseudonym because of the issue’s sensitivity) announced in a letter to the community that he would “work to reduce the carbon footprint of the district,” he was attacked for what was described by some as a “liberal agenda.”

As this was his first superintendency, Mitch reflected about the situation this way: “I was politically naïve about the community’s partisan dynamics. But a few board members had no problem providing me counsel.”

After learning that enrollment in AP Environmental Science was down because a parent group complained that sustainability, which serves as one of the four major course themes, “perpetrated the hoax about climate change,” the superintendent realized his previous leadership priorities in a school district that embraced sustainability education would have to be “reframed and repackaged.”

An Inquiry Approach

Delegating the goal of maximizing energy efficiency to his assistant superintendent for finance and her oversight of the facilities department, he was careful to use language, internally and externally with the community, that described the efforts to decrease energy waste through improved lighting protocols and upgrades or consolidating student bus runs as “fiscally conservative program changes to reduce the tax burden on the community.” He consistently and repeatedly applied the language in his correspondence and presentations.

At the same time, Mitch met with his curricular leaders to learn how to “repackage” how courses and clubs were being presented to students and their families. A few staff confided in him their concerns that “science denial” was becoming more overt and that some colleagues were reluctant to engage with sometimes hostile parents.

Mitch suggested teachers use an inquiry-based approach led by students gathering and assessing evidence to agree on evidence-based conclusions, that also included an examination of pseudoscience.

In her article, “How Can Educators Confront Science Denial” for Educational Researcher, Rebekka Darner provides a model that recognizes how a direct approach to reason by presenting science facts can create a “backfiring effect,” further entrenching science deniers in their preferred conclusion. Instead, students were provided with problem-solving tasks that required them to examine various forms of evidence through critical evaluation before drawing their conclusions.

As superintendent, Mitch was less concerned about the language used to describe what they were doing because his goal was about ensuring that students, their teachers and his leadership team were engaged in accuracy-oriented reasoning.

—  Ken Mitchell