Climate and Sustainability in Our Schools

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

April 01, 2024


In today’s rapidly changing world, school districts face the daunting task of maximizing their limited resources while preparing students for the future. A key to achieving this lies in operational efficiency, particularly in energy management, and a commitment to sustainability that saves costs and is an educational tool for tomorrow’s leaders.

We had taken steps towards this goal with my former district in Illinois. We transitioned to LED lighting, which consumes less energy and lasts longer than traditional lighting. This change significantly reduced energy consumption and lowered maintenance costs.

Additionally, we installed motion sensors in select areas and adopted building automation systems for real-time energy use control and monitoring. These systems adjusted lighting, heating and cooling as needed, leading to more efficient operations and cost reductions.

A Place to Begin

Energy conservation is a vital starting point in resource optimization. Implementing energy-efficient practices and technologies allows schools to reduce utility costs substantially. These savings then can be reallocated to educational programs and improvements, fostering a positive cycle that benefits both the environment and student learning.

Recognizing the importance of environmental sustainability, many school districts nationwide are embracing renewable energy sources like solar power and electric school buses. This shift aligns with ecological goals and offers long-term financial benefits. With state and federal incentives available, renewable energy projects become more financially viable for schools, reducing reliance on traditional energy sources and lowering operational costs.

School district infrastructure improvements and new facilities are increasingly geared toward achieving LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. This globally recognized system provides a framework for creating efficient, cost-saving green buildings. LEED certification is a mark of sustainability and a commitment to environmental stewardship. It involves stringent standards in energy efficiency, water conservation, indoor environmental quality and material use, enhancing operational efficiency and showcasing sustainable practices. When we added a natatorium at one of our schools in 2015, we pursued the LEED certification to recognize its environmentally friendly design.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Schools initiative, launched in 2011, emphasizes environmental responsibility in education. It honors institutions that reduce their environmental impact, promote health and wellness and deliver comprehensive environmental and sustainability education. The program encourages schools to integrate sustainable practices in operations and academics, celebrating excellence in 21st-century education and environmental stewardship.

As of 2023, the federal program recognized 712 honorees: 542 schools, 108 districts and 62 postsecondary institutions. A school district was recognized recently for various initiatives, including the school board’s adoption of an environmental education policy and the creation of an energy manager specialist position that works with every school and teacher to discuss energy conservation, health and educational resources. Additionally, several of the district’s schools have on-site solar generating systems.

Imaginative Prospects

To truly create a better future, we must infuse our schools with the spirit of innovation that characterizes our most significant technological advancements. Operational efficiencies and sustainability in schools go beyond cost savings and environmental impact. They set an example for students, demonstrating that innovation is not limited to products or technologies but is a mindset, a way of engaging with the world. By integrating energy-efficient technologies and renewable energy sources, we show students that innovation applies to every aspect of life, including their learning environments.

Imagine the potential of renewable energy in schools. One of the most unique projects the schools in my previous district developed was the high-mileage vehicle competition. Students would work together in teams to design an energy-efficient vehicle that would culminate in a competition at a local racetrack against teams from across the state. The vehicle that burned the least fuel would win the competition, and the average miles per gallon ranged between 100 to 200 miles, while some teams achieved more than 500 miles per gallon.

When students see solar panels or learn in classrooms powered by wind energy or design energy-efficient vehicles in the classroom, it ignites curiosity and a deeper understanding of the world beyond what textbooks offer. This approach prepares them for a future where sustainability and the ability to dream of possibilities are integral to every industry and sector that they may one day lead.

Continue to be well, my friends!

David Schuler is AASA executive director. Twitter: @AASA_ED