What Makes a GREEN School?


Every school is an investment in the future. Schools have the unique opportunity to nurture young minds and support a stable, sustainable future for the world around us in a multitude of ways. For students, green schools present an opportunity to learn how to lead healthier and more sustainable lives now and in the future.

How do you get sustainability in your school to stick? The Whole School Sustainability framework, a resource from the Center for Green Schools, can help guide you. Within this framework, there are “the three pillars of a green school” — which measures success in sustainability and helps to make these efforts stick.

The three pillars were first introduced when the U.S. Department of Education launched the ED-Green Ribbon Schools award program in 2011. Since then, over 60 organizations have adopted the basic measurement framework that they present:

  • Reduced environmental impact
  • Increased health and well-being
  • Increased environmental and sustainability literacy for all graduates

Having measurable metrics for success helps green schools understand their sustainability impact on a global and individual scale.

Environmental Impact

To have less of an environmental impact, green schools can focus on reducing energy and water use, fossil fuels used for transportation, waste headed to landfills and more. Here’s what we know about how these actions affect humans and the Earth:

  • Using less energy in buildings means less demand on power plants. Power plants emit carbon when generating energy.
  • Using less water in buildings means less energy used to treat and transport water, as well as less aquifer depletion and more protection for freshwater habitats.
  • Producing less waste that is sent to landfills means more room for natural habitat and less water and soil contamination.
  • Reducing car trips by single users means less carbon emissions.

Health and Well-Being

Paying attention to health in schools has an impact on student wellness and learning. To increase student and teacher wellness, green schools can create clean indoor environments, provide access to good nutrition, and promote physical activity in school. Here’s what we know about how these actions affect the health and wellness of school populations:

  • Circulating clean air that is rid of harmful amounts of CO2, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), particulates, and humidity improves student learning and overall health.
  • Providing meals with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables to students has a positive impact on not only health, but also on their ability to learn.
  • Increasing physical activity time in schools reduces obesity rates in students and promotes positive lifelong healthy habits.

Environmental and Sustainability Literacy

A more sustainable future begins with teaching students and staff about the environment, thus giving them the tools needed to solve global challenges both now and in the future. Education that supports this type of literacy includes both curriculum and instructional practices that are interdisciplinary, place-based and rooted in the context that uniquely surrounds each student. Here’s what we know about the impacts of environmental and sustainability literacy:

  • Increasing students’ environmental knowledge while also employing instructional practices that focus on interdisciplinary and place-based problem solving can influence behavior change toward sustainability.
  • Developing civic engagement knowledge and skills can help students know how to address sustainability issues in their communities.
  • Utilizing environment and sustainability subjects to develop STEM content knowledge and thinking helps students prepare for the 21st century technology-driven economy.

What Comes Next?

  • Train school staff: Pursue your Green Classroom Professional Certificate
  • Bring it into every classroom: Incorporate sustainability curriculum
  • Commit to measuring your impact: Track and measure sustainability progress in school buildings through LEED certification and Arc’s online performance platform

No matter where your school is on its journey to becoming greener, consider these three pillars to understand your impact and plan for the future. Every school plays a huge role in nurturing a more equipped, efficient and sustainable future.

Visit centerforgreenschools.org to learn more. Anisa Heming is the director of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

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