At the heart of every school is the desire to help students thrive. This desire requires support from teachers, faculty members, families, communities and even school buildings.

A green school is about more than curriculum, more than programming and more than bricks and mortar. It’s a school that not only sets students up for success, but also supports global sustainability. A green school begins with the future in mind, designing a learning experience that will prepare students to lead their communities toward a healthier and cleaner future.

We can all get on board with supporting our students, but not everyone may know where to start when it comes to building a culture of sustainability in their school. This eight-step checklist can help anyone who interacts with a school — from students and teachers to parents and administrators — to foster a greener school community.

  1. Gather Your Team
    Get started by gathering people interested in the cause and form a team. Successful green schools have green teams that help inspire and implement sustainable practices. The best part is that anyone can be involved! Look for advocates in teachers, administrators, custodians, parents, community volunteers and most importantly students. Local sustainability professionals and technical experts are also a resource and can help you form a mission and set reasonable goals.
  2. Find Your Starting Point
    Greening your school requires an understanding of how things currently operate. For example, if you want to implement a recycling or composting program, you first need to know what kind of waste your school is producing and how it’s being handled. Same goes for energy. If you want to implement energy saving strategies, you first need to know how much energy is being used and how the systems operate. This benchmarking process can also be an incredible learning opportunity for students. Many education and environmental organizations have auditing tools and standards-aligned lessons for students to analyze and benchmark sustainability at their school. You can find examples on Learning Lab, the Center for Green Schools’ curriculum platform.
  3. Use Tracking Tools
    Once you’ve established your school’s baseline sustainability metrics — like energy, water, waste, or others — invest in tools to track progress toward improvement. For energy and water, consider using ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager, a tool from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that is free to use. To benchmark multiple sustainability metrics across your school or school district — including energy, water, waste, transportation and air quality — you can also use Arc, a platform that tracks and scores building performance so you understand where you fall relative to your neighbors and to global averages.

    The LEED for Schools Rating System, which can be used for new schools or already-operating ones, is a third-party rating system that recognizes excellence in sustainability performance. It’s great to have a goal in mind for the work of your green team, and LEED certification can be a goalpost to strive for. It addresses aspects of school operations like waste management, energy performance, air quality monitoring, responsible grounds keeping and more.

  4. Behavior Change Leads to Culture Change
    Whether your school is undergoing major renovations or smaller updates, changes in behavior will ultimately improve energy efficiency and the health of those in your school. By educating all members of the school community, and setting clear expectations for how behavior should change, your school has a greater chance of creating an environmentally responsible culture.

    Woodland Elementary School’s dining/arts wing houses the cafetorium, as well as art, music, and STEM classrooms on one upper level. Image credit Ed Wonsek, courtesy of USGBC.

    Support that change by directing educators to certificate programs that equip pre-K12 educators and school staff with the knowledge to identify what supports or impedes healthy, resource efficient and sustainable learning spaces. To help teachers lead culture change for their students, host professional development events that show how the natural environment can become an outdoor classroom and where the school building can serve as an example of how to put learning into action.

  5. Point People in the Right Direction
    The best school buildings are designed with teaching in mind, and one of the best ways to foster a green school community is to engage with the building.

    At Rosa Parks Elementary School in Lexington, Kentucky, an energy efficiency pilot program led to a community-wide conservation movement. During the first year of the pilot, a fourth-grade class set a goal of $10,000 in energy savings. The students did energy walkthroughs; teachers held class using only daylight; facilities staff de-lamped one bulb per classroom and changed set-points of mechanical equipment. At the end of the year, the school was shocked to find out that they had saved $50,000 — five times their goal.

    Since then, the school has only improved its energy efficiency efforts. Parents, teachers, community organizations, and volunteers also formed a sustainability committee to report and make new recommendations to the school’s decision-makers.

  6. Find a Different Perspective
    Partner with more unexpected experts on the ground to achieve your school’s sustainability objectives. The men and women of your custodial staff know your facility inside and out and are often great resources for ideas on efficiency and green school operations. Short web trainings on working with maintenance and custodial staff are available from the Center for Green Schools, and the companion guide found in the first module has a list of questions you can ask to learn more about current efforts and brainstorm improvements.
  7. Put Kids in Charge
    Placing students at the center of a sustainability program is critical to the program’s long-term success and the cultivation of a generation of sustainability leaders. Students have an endless supply of energy, ideas and enthusiasm; and successful schools harness this invaluable, renewable resource.

    In schools that are ahead of the sustainability curve, students are regularly engaged in leading projects and initiatives that speak to environmental principles and practices. They research and develop new solutions and collaborate with appropriate faculty and staff, and they are granted the authority to implement their ideas. As students develop an understanding of their role and responsibility in the sustainability of their school, they also learn their role and responsibility as citizens of their community and the earth.

  8. See What Works
    Look into local programs that support green schools and provide on-the-ground support — and sometimes prizes and rewards! For instance, the National Wildlife Federation runs EcoSchools, a guided action-based program for schools to follow alongside other schools. If you’re looking for other programs and guides to follow alongside, there are also many web trainings for school staff to get moving on their own.

    The mission of schools is to educate young people and prepare them to lead a better future, so any effort to make a school more sustainable has to be rooted in student learning and engagement to be successful. There are many ways to bring sustainability into the classroom, from standards-aligned lessons from Learning Lab, to wilderness exploration with a local non-profit, to civic action projects with groups like Earth Force and Climate Generation.

    At the end of the day, don’t be afraid to do something that may seem different, and let students know they have a voice. It’s their education, their health, and they are ultimately our sources of inspiration.

Anisa Heming is the director of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). In this role, she provides strategic direction to USGBC’s work in schools and coordinates an organization-wide team to promote environmental sustainability, health and wellness, and sustainability literacy in school systems around the world.

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