Communicating Sustainability

by Matt Peterson and Wynn Calder / 11 March 2016

It goes without saying that there are many approaches to communicating sustainability in education. “Sustainability” comprises a large, comprehensive and complex set of concepts for improving the condition of people and the planet. Like democracy, it has been defined as “an ideal end-state” (AtKisson, 2010). Arjen Wals (2010) has described it as “both urgent and inevitably unknown.” While schools often settle for terms like “environmental” or “green” or “stewardship” to define their efforts, we encourage using the word “sustainability,” despite its drawbacks. But this can only work if schools take the time to define what they mean and to reinforce that definition in their teaching, learning, and daily life.

There is little doubt today that, as physical, place-based institutions with buildings, grounds and parking lots, schools should support the most environmentally responsible and sustainable campuses they can (from energy and water conservation to waste reduction and recycling). This is nearly always the place to start when schools take on sustainability. But we are interested in a commitment to sustainability that engages all dimensions of school life. Simply put, if we can’t engage our teachers, if we can’t enlist them in teaching the content and skills of sustainability (or sustainable development), then we have failed to play our part, as educational institutions, in solving the challenges of our time.

A surprising challenge with the term “sustainability” is its global and comprehensive relevance. Its all-encompassing nature is also its detriment: because we as educators understand how everything is connected, we often struggle to know where to start or how to define or limit the conversation. In response, it is tempting to want to do away with the conventional disciplines, replacing them with new approaches. But few of us are at schools either visionary or progressive enough to envision and staff such a prospect. Instead, we must embrace our roles as interpreters, guests, and storytellers –reforming from within our schools’ cultures, curricula, and values.

Whether teachers know it or not, all disciplines have a part to play in the teaching of environmental, cultural, and economic sustainability. In fact, many are playing that part unwittingly, but by different terms and ends. The work of inclusion and communication, however, is primarily ours, as practitioners and educators of sustainability. With our help, all disciplines can find the room(s) of sustainability sufficiently large and welcoming. To succeed, we must approach our task knowing we are the guests, seeking to understand the spirit of each discipline rather than shoehorning sustainability into syllabi and colleagues’ classrooms.

At the secondary level, when it comes to curriculum, sustainability is too often boiled down to environmental science. That way, by giving “sustainability” its own class and faculty, nothing elsewhere needs to change very much. But the values that have denuded landscapes have also inspired destructive regimes and wiped out cultures – the bread and butter of literature and history. Thus, our language must be generous enough to allow for technical application, broad reflection, and application in one’s life – the rich and varied interconnections necessary for a coherent worldview. Our task is to foster an approach to sustainability that values the ethical and esthetic underpinnings of humanity’s social and environmental challenges and prospects; to equip students with the ethical, social, ecological, and scientific know-how to grapple with our era’s complex and interrelated challenges.

We might wish there were a standard method for transitioning to teaching and practicing sustainability. But no two independent schools are quite alike in their cultures and values. Nevertheless, we hope the following suggestions provide some perspective on the challenge of discerning and communicating sustainability at your school.

A- Understand your school culture.

How liberal or conservative or progressive or counter-cultural is your school? Where do the majority of your faculty, administration, staff, and students sit on the continuum? What words are most often used to describe your school’s “green” or “sustainability” efforts? In the words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, “Words create worlds.”

B- Develop an official definition and/or vision statement.

Many schools have benefitted from developing sustainability mission or vision statements. Use your school culture as a starting point to find language that inspires the community to embrace this larger vision. As a community statement, however, it requires community participation. Beginning the conversation amongst members of your sustainability or environmental committee makes sense, but it’s critical to include the larger community once you have something worth sharing. Note: The simplest process is to create a online document and invite feedback from all constituencies for a limited period of time. Much can be gained, as well, from a faculty retreat that is carefully organized to identify common aspirations and elicit honest feedback. Throughout the process, we recommend that you:

(a)- Redeem sustainability from the realm of “special interest.” Help people understand that sustainability is a fundamentally conservative issue and one that concerns all people. It reaches to the root of common sense.

(b)- Consider sustainability in the context of values and human flourishing. If we limit sustainability to a matter of technology, we will have only addressed the symptoms of our excessive appetites. As we move into the Anthropocene, we must honestly ask ourselves how humans have come this far and consider where our species is headed and where we’re taking Earth with us.

(c)- If possible, discern a spirit of sustainability within the school’s wider mission, summoning the school’s seminal language to ensure continuity.

C- Use the vision to guide programming and curriculum over time.

(a)- Seek coherence and integration; root out inconsistencies. When institutions discern inconsistent goals, they can begin to see the inadequacies of their narratives or mythologies. The cognitive dissonance can summon us to reconcile what we want with how we have sought it.

(b)- Build friendships with different people to prevent the echo chamber. Shared and durable language emerges by embracing all that your faculty is. Do not make a habit of vainly wishing everyone would think as you do. Listen for the principles of sustainability in others’ language.

(c)- With a strong vision in place, spark formal and informal conversation with personnel who oversee curricula, from deans to department chairs and academic committees. Through conversation and study, colleagues may begin to see that sustainability is surprisingly familiar and, in time, refreshingly powerful. Sustainability seeks to apply the humanities. It urges ethical and compassionate engagement with the world, whether in laboratories or in the field. Note: This is obviously not the job of one person. It requires the steady efforts of a core of interested faculty and staff.

D- Communicate progress and successes regularly.

Doing so allows you to manage your school’s cultural shift. Few schools do this well, but committing to it properly frames and develops an identity beyond individual events. It becomes a story for others to tell and repeat (i.e., Marketing, Communication, and Development offices, spotlight on the dining hall, kudos to staff in Facilities).

Moving a school toward an ethos of sustainability is good, slow cultural work that engages people as individuals and professionals. It is work we can and must do. We owe it to our students to model this work so they can continue and extend it.


AtKisson, Alan (2010). Believing Cassandra, 2nd ed., Routledge.

Wals, Arjen (2010). “Message in a Bottle,” Inaugural Address.

Matt Peterson is English Department Chair and Academic Dean at Western Reserve Academy. Wynn Calder is Sustainability consultant to NAIS and Director of Sustainable Schools LLC.

NOTE:  This blog was initially posted on the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) website.

Sustainability in the Curriculum: Lots of Options

by Wynn Calder and Torrey McMillan / 11 January 2016

There is a difference between educating for sustainability and educating about sustainability.  The latter can sit largely in the theoretical realm, looking at the causes and consequences of unsustainability, and at the characteristics of more sustainable products, processes and systems.  Educating about sustainability does not necessarily ask much of us in terms of self-examination and change making (in ourselves, our institutions, our communities).  In contrast, the former is active, with an intention of creating change and change agents.  Educating for sustainability (EfS) is aimed at solving societal challenges in the present, as well as those likely to emerge in the future.  What knowledge, thinking, and skills are fundamental to educating for sustainability?  And how can interested educators transition more effectively in this direction?

Concepts and Skills

Various organizations and institutions have developed frameworks for teaching the concepts and skills they consider essential for educating students to take better care of people and the planet.  The Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education has explored for over a decade the “habits of thought” of a sustainability educated person.  The Institute has reframed these into a set of nine content standards:

  1. Cultural Preservation & Transformation
  2. Responsible Local & Global Citizenship
  3. The Dynamics of Systems & Change
  4. Sustainable Economics
  5. Healthy Commons
  6. Natural Laws & Ecological Principles
  7. Inventing & Affecting The Future
  8. Multiple Perspectives
  9. Sense of Place


The US Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development has also produced a set of standards for education for sustainable development (2009) spanning the K-12 years. The basic components include:

  1. Intergenerational Responsibility
  2. Interconnectedness
  3. Ecological Systems
  4. Economic Systems
  5. Social and Cultural Systems
  6. Personal Action
  7. Collective Action


Washington State, among several others, has developed a set of Integrated Environmental and Sustainability Education Learning Standards (2014) that address the following areas:

— Standard 1: Ecological, Social and Economic Systems – Students develop knowledge of the interconnections and interdependency of ecological, social and economic systems. They demonstrate understanding of how the health of these systems determines the sustainability of natural and human communities at local, regional, national and global levels.

— Standard 2: The Natural and Built Environment – Students engage in inquiry and systems thinking and use information gained through learning experiences in, about and for the environment to understand the structure, components and processes of natural and human-built environments.

— Standard 3: Sustainability and Civic Responsibility – Students develop and apply the knowledge, perspective, vision, skills and habits of mind necessary to make personal and collective decisions and take actions that promote sustainability.

Many more such frameworks exist, but the main ideas of EfS are captured above.  The scope of sustainability education is wide, so most teachers in most disciplines can find connections between what they currently teach and the content/skills of sustainability.  At the same time, there is no ‘one size fits all’.  Schools must determine their own entry points to teaching these competencies.  Departmental and school cultures will find that some concepts are better fits than others.  We don’t believe there is one right way to approach education for sustainability.

Individual and Institutional Strategies for Teaching Sustainability

At most independent schools teachers have the luxury to be somewhat flexible in what and how they teach.  Therefore adding sustainability content can be a personal choice.  Many resources exist (from websites to workshops to consultants) to assist.  We would suggest that teachers do the following:

1- Team up with like-minded colleagues from your own or other departments.  Have regular discussions about how to bring sustainability content/skills to your classes.

2- For new ideas, guides and course units, in addition to those links above, see the Center for Ecoliteracy, Creative Change: Educational Solutions, and Facing the Future.  Also, look for ways to apply systems thinking to understanding the complex, multidisciplinary content of sustainability education (see the Creative Learning Exchange) and the Waters Foundation for ideas).

3- Since EfS is strongly associated with active learning, give special attention to place-based and experiential learning approaches where feasible.

4- Rather than thinking about adding new units or content to courses, look to see what is already in the curriculum that can be taught using a sustainability lens.  The framework and questions that we use to understand the material in our curriculum can also be used to help students practice the skills and habits of thought of a sustainability thinker.  A shift in the framework and questions is often all that is needed to bring sustainability education into an existing course or unit.

Schools, if so motivated, can do more:

1- A sustainability committee is a good thing if it is taken seriously by the administration and Board.  It’s a very good thing if it is given some authority and a budget to make decisions and carry them out, or if it has key decision-makers as members.  Make sure the topic of “sustainability in the curriculum” is a regular agenda item.

2- Schools benefit from being “partners” in this process.  Partnering with students, though challenging, can be particularly rewarding.  This can mean engaging students in genuine ways in making change within the institution.  Having students involved with real decisions of the board and administration, on the committees and in the meetings will teach students more about power, decision-making, interdisciplinary thinking, and complex systems than any theoretical unit.  At a minimum: (a) give able and enthusiastic students seats on your sustainability committee (assuming you have one), (b) invite these students to annually address the BOD on sustainability matters.  At its best, the BOD would not see this as just a “nice way to engage with students” but rather as a genuine conversation worth having in its own right.

3- Schools often want to place sustainability in the science department.  There is certainly a science element to sustainability, but our quest for sustainability is, at its heart, a humanistic quest.  The planet will go on with or without us.  We are really searching for ways to sustain ourselves over the long term.  And, while technology does, and will undoubtedly, play a critical role in moving us toward a more sustainable future, we must also grapple with the social, ethical and political questions about how we live on this planet and how we live with each other.  These questions sit squarely in the humanities and social sciences.

4- Sustainability provides an excellent context for interdisciplinary work with students.  Sustainability issues sit at a natural convergence of many disciplines.  It doesn’t feel forced.  For schools interested in bringing more interdisciplinary opportunities to their students, consider organizing courses around pressing sustainability questions of the times and using these pressing questions to teach the disciplinary content that students need to understand to address them.  Would students learn exactly what they are learning now, just in a different configuration?  No.  Does this make sense for all courses and content?  Probably not.  But offering such courses, particularly with an engaged citizenship component, as integrative experiences in the senior year could provide an alternative model to keep students more engaged in their final year of high school.  Not that a school would have to wait for the senior year to offer such courses.  These could also be distinctive experiences in each grade level or in shorter chunks of time, like “Jan-term” or “May-mester” mini-courses.

Moving Forward

We know that for most schools curricular reform is a major challenge.  The majority of them are locked into a narrow model of discrete college preparatory courses, and only a minority are brave enough to step outside the box, namely some independent schools (such as White Mountain School and The Evergreen School), some public schools (such as Kellam High School), some public charter schools (such as the Academy for Global Citizenship), some expeditionary learning schools, and some essential schools.  We also know that college admissions offices are more flexible than most high schools think they are, which makes the slowness of smart innovation more frustrating still.

As hard as curricular reform can be, taking steps to integrate some sustainability education into the curriculum doesn’t have to be hard.  As noted earlier, with so many entry points across the disciplines, there is likely something you or a colleague are already doing in your classes that could readily be modified.  Or perhaps you’re ready to introduce a new unit, or to restructure an old course. Take a look at the different standards and resources described above and let these inspire your thinking about your own teaching.

Wynn Calder is consultant on sustainability to NAIS and director of Sustainable Schools LLC, and Torrey McMillan is Director of the Center for Sustainability at Hathaway Brown School.

NOTE:  This blog was initially posted on the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) website.

Benchmarking Progress in Sustainability for Schools

Simply put, “benchmarking” means measuring the quality of an organization’s work and comparing it with standardized or similar measurements of its peers. The real point of benchmarking is to figure out where one’s weaknesses are and to improve performance over time. As the field of sustainability in education grows, we are getting better at assessing and benchmarking progress. Higher education, as usual, is leading the way. But we’re still in the early stages of developing a widely usable tool for K-12 schools.

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) launched STARS in early 2010, which stands for Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System. It’s currently the best benchmarking tool we have for higher education. STARS measures sustainability performance in four areas: Academics, Engagement, Operations, and Planning & Administration. It is being used by over 700 colleges and universities worldwide, mostly in the US and Canada, and, like LEED for buildings, rates institutions from bronze to platinum (about 300 institutions are currently rated). Also like LEED, STARS is continually updated and improved. This year, Colorado State University was the first to receive a platinum rating.

From STARS came Protostar. With funding from the E.E. Ford Foundation and the Eight Schools Association, STARS v1.2 was adapted for K-12 use and launched as Protostar in early 2014. It is the first attempt to provide a comprehensive sustainability measurement and certification tool for K-12 schools. There are currently 22 registered schools, nine of which have received Protostar ratings.

Why so few? The main reason – and the main complaint – is that Protostar is a lot of work. It requires, minimally, several weeks of full staff time to complete. The technical manual is 270 pages long. Frank Barros, sustainability director at King School (Stamford, CT), who led the creation of Protostar, suggests that a sustainability coordinator/teacher would need a dedicated one-class reduction to finish the assessment in one year. Imbedded in that view is the notion that the best results come from data gathered through on-going conversation and collaboration with staff, faculty and students. The process itself is highly informative and educational.  But only schools with sustainability coordinators and focused determination can do it.

There is a simpler, though more limited, option. EPA’s Energy Star Portfolio Manager (PM) is a free, interactive national building energy database that is both widely used and relatively easy to complete. PM includes an energy performance rating system that allows commercial and public (and independent school) buildings to be compared in terms of their total energy use (measured as energy/square foot). It also normalizes for weather and several other building characteristics, allowing comparisons to be made on a level playing field.

Portfolio Manager is also improving and growing all the time. Thirteen major cities in the U.S. now require its use by all public and commercial buildings. Soon all of California will require PM. Thousands of schools are already using it. While the website is somewhat intimidating, it’s not difficult to use. Armed with a year’s worth of school energy bills, a staff member could create an account, enter the data, and get a score within a day. Once an account is established, annual updating is relatively simple.

What’s Next?

It’s likely that thousands of schools in the US (including publics and privates) are hungry for a sustainability benchmarking tool they can use with ease. That doesn’t yet exist. Portfolio Manager provides a strong, partial option. For comprehensive sustainability measurement, rating, and benchmarking, Protostar is still the best choice. But clearly there is a need for something simpler than Protostar for those schools that don’t have the person power to do such a thorough assessment, or that aren’t far enough along in sustainability practice and teaching to warrant it.

Green Schools Alliance (GSA), which now manages Protostar, is developing a platform for its new website launch in early 2016 that will, we hope, provide an easier entry into the world of sustainability metrics. The goal is to allow member schools to identify their strengths and weaknesses, compare themselves with others, and determine where to go from here. For those institutions that are ready for a deeper dive, Protostar will be waiting.

AASHE staff and STARS users are the first to say that STARS is a work in progress and always will be. The same, of course, must go for Protostar, and for the platform that GSA is creating now to make it easier for all schools to measure and benchmark their progress. Schools committed to the learning and practices we need for a more sustainable future should continue working together to advance this critical effort.

NOTE:  This blog was originally posted on the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) website.

The Road to Paris and the Hope for a Lasting Climate Agreement – Is Your School Engaged?

Climate change talk and action are everywhere right now. The media has never been so willing to cover it. US presidential candidates are – or are notably not – discussing it. The fossil fuel divestment movement, which started on college campuses in the US, has moved beyond higher education and beyond our borders. Leaders from 68 of the largest US corporations met with the White House on October 19th and agreed to reduce climate emissions and support the upcoming United Nations climate deal. Indeed 196 nations are preparing for the most critical climate conference yet. The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change will convene in Paris from November 30 – December 11. Its aim is to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement to keep global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

The “Road to Paris,” a phrase coined by the business, non-profit and government sectors busy preparing for this climate conference, so far seems promising. America’s Clean Power Plan, announced in August, aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 28% by the year 2030 compared with 2005 levels. Brazil has promised a 43% cut. China says its emissions will peak in 2030, and has pledged to launch a carbon trading system in 2017.

Yet the complexities of this process are extraordinary. How do we get nearly 200 nations to agree? What is each country’s fair share of the carbon burden? Many poor countries feel they should not have to try to fix a problem they bear little responsibility for. Rather they need help, they claim, to deal with increasingly extreme weather, drought and rising seas. To date, over 150 countries have submitted their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to reduce emissions. These plans present a mix of targets in such areas as energy efficiency, transportation improvement, renewable energy, and forest protection. The problem, according to analysts, is that so far the pledges don’t add up: rather than assuring a global temperature rise of under 2°C, the estimated numbers suggest we’ll be closer to 3.5°C by the end of the century. The dire consequences of that kind of rise are carefully documented in various scientific and policy papers, including the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

Even in America, the tide of opinion is changing. Recent polls indicate that a strong majority of citizens supports government action to fight climate change (New York Times, January 30, 2015).  In education, colleges and universities are leading the way in climate awareness and action. To date, 685 college and university presidents have signed the 2007 American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (PCC), which requires those institutions to improve education on climate change and to develop climate action plans with a goal of climate neutrality. Within the last year, the presidents of Harvard and Yale have publicly acknowledged the critical need to address climate change holistically and committed their institutions to finding solutions through research, operational practices, and public and private partnerships. In 2008, the Green Schools Alliance (GSA) was founded to encourage all K-12 schools to address climate change, modeling its own Climate Commitment on the PCC.

Yet I know of no independent schools that have taken action on climate change at the level of higher education. Many schools have embraced sustainability as a new priority in campus practice. A small number have started to look at how their curriculum prepares students to encounter the real world challenges of sustainability. But very few are addressing climate change head on.  If there was ever an opportune moment to engage in this issue and join the global conversation, it is now.

If your school is not already doing so, I would suggest taking the following actions:

  1. Bring in speakers to address the whole school community about the UN climate conference, and the challenges of both solving and living with climate change.


  1. Invite teachers to come up with exercises or lessons that address climate change and to integrate them into their classes.


  1. Engage all constituencies in the following global questions:
  • In what ways is climate change a political, social, environmental, and economic issue, in other words, a sustainable development issue?
  • How can the countries of the world effectively reach the binding agreement planned for COP21?
  • To what extent is the grass roots climate change movement more like the human rights and social justice struggles of the past than it is an environmental movement?
  • Can we work with the fossil fuel industry to implement strategies that will benefit all? If not, how can we force the industry to change?
  • If climate change is unavoidable, how can we adapt to it?


  1. Engage all constituencies in the following individual and institutional questions:
  • What does it mean to be a climate literate person?
  • If one accepts the reality of climate change, what does it mean to be a responsible citizen?
  • If our school is committed to students of the present and future, and wants to thrive long into the future, what obligations does it have, both in teaching and practice, in the face of climate change?
  • What would it mean for our school to commit to climate neutrality as soon as possible? And how can carbon offsets contribute meaningfully to the goal of neutrality?


  1. Develop an ambitious Climate Action Plan for your school, making it clear to all constituencies that this is a priority.


Some Selected Resources:


NOTE:  This blog was originally posted on the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) website.

Learning from Venezuela

I went to Caracas, Venezuela, in early May 2015 with an open mind and few expectations. Knowing the country is in deep political and economic turmoil, with one of highest murder rates in the world, I also wondered if I was crazy. And I don’t speak Spanish.

Six months earlier, I was invited to take part in a year-long event in Caracas beginning – after several delays and a sudden requirement to obtain a visa – in May. The event is called “How to Build a Desired City: A Forum 2015,” inspired by a small organization called BackroomCaracas, supported by the U.S. Embassy, and hosted by the Chacao Municipality, the wealthiest and most progressive of the five municipalities that comprise Caracas.

The Forum description read as follows: “Caracas has an urgent need for a place to encourage dialogue and an exchange of views, to have a space where people can learn about new ideas that will have a positive impact on their lives today and on future generations. The Chacao Municipality is… an ideal location to host a forum where five U.S. experts, who have a successful track record on the design and execution of projects that can generate fundamental changes in a society, can deliver a monthly keynote speech to inspire, involve and engage public servants, members of business associations and the community at large to participate in the transformation of their own community.”

Under the circumstances, this seemed like a daunting task. I was to be the first visitor, to spend a week in (and around) Caracas talking about education for sustainability. Four other Americans were scheduled to visit Caracas over the ensuing months to help generate ideas and hope on the topics of food and health; public space; culture of peace; and effective governance.













Caracas Streets

The moment I arrived, I surrendered to the experience. The fact is, I was not in control. I followed a man out of the airport who held a sign that read, “Forum,” and who I could not communicate with. He led me to a large armored SUV, supplied and required by the U.S. Embassy, in which I was driven at high (often unnerving) speeds to my hotel, where Rody Douzoglou, director of BackroomCaracas and my host for the week, was waiting. As we sat and talked, a renewed sense of purpose and anticipation settled in. I gave a public address, visited some local elementary schools, was interviewed on TV and radio, met with city and state government officials, and addressed a gathering of academics at Central University of Venezuela (UCV). And in the course of that week, while humbly imparting a little experience from the U.S., I learned some lessons:

1- When life gets difficult, our common humanity emerges and we take very little for granted. It took no time to begin feeling a strong, almost familial connection with my daily companions. They were trying not only to keep us on schedule and make sure I ate lunch; they were also trying to keep me safe. And the distractions of modern life – immediate gratification, information, entertainment, devices – seemed insignificant in comparison to the relationships I was developing with my hosts, colleagues, and, by the end, friends. Words from the Earth Charter (2000) rang especially true: “Life is about being more, not having more.”

A question lingered: In America, a country of comparative privilege, material abundance and preoccupation with wealth and status, how can we relearn living is connection and harmony with the world around us? And what does this mean for the perennial question of education: what should students know, be able to do, and value when they graduate?






Anti-Violence Street Art

2- In its current raw state, Venezuela is a place where the core values of sustainability really resonate. It was easier to explain what it means, in translation, there than it is here. In other words, when you have to worry about your safety every day (being held up by gunmen on motorcycles or “express kidnapping”), about speaking out, about the reliability of your electricity, water, and waste management, and about getting enough food and basic supplies for a week – whether you’re a taxi driver or a professor – you understand almost viscerally that for a community to be healthy, it has to work well socially, politically, economically, and environmentally. And you see that all these things are interconnected.

So when I talked about the origins of the concept of sustainable development, the ways in which the 1992 Rio Earth Summit advanced that idea and produced Agenda 21, a blueprint for building a sustainable human dominated planet, the Earth Charter and the UN Millennium Development goals launched in 2000, and UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development that started in 2005 and ended last year, everyone nodded as if to say, “of course.”

In America, it’s much easier to live in denial. Most of the deep and pervasive challenges we face are abstract. In Venezuela, they’re right in front of you. Not so much the effects of climate change, but the economic and political instability, the smog, the litter, the poverty, the tainted water, the violence.

Which raises the question: How do we, as educators, help cut through the cultural denial that makes it so easy in America to think that business as usual will solve our problems? How can we help students and teachers feel the visceral need for a new model of development that is as relevant to Venezuelans as it is to Americans?





“Chávez eyes are watching you” – Bolivarian propaganda

 3- I was consistently surprised by the hope and desire to improve the world that I encountered in the Venezuelans I met. In spite of their daily threats and worries, and perhaps because of them, their priority was to work each day to make things better.

These are the lives I’m talking about: I spent a lot of time with a woman who works in the Cultural Office for the Chacao municipality. She’s not concerned so much about herself because she worries about her daughter, a teenager who attends a German school in Caracas. Her daughter wants to go to a university in Europe because life is so bleak at home. A young architecture professor at UCV has seen steady cuts in salary and can only survive because his parents can offer a little extra help. For the moment at least, he is determined to stay in Venezuela because he wants to keep teaching young people and because he believes his country can thrive again. The director of Miranda State’s nearly 500 public schools spends a lot of time visiting his schools and problem solving. He is a member of the opposition Mesa Unity Democratic party (opposed to the other major party, the incumbent leftist United Socialist Party of Venezuela) and travels with a trusted driver. Yet given the prevalence of gang violence in the country, he told me he is more afraid of “random risk” than “political risk.” Why does he stay in Venezuela? He is committed to his country and to his large, close family.

Let me be clear: fear and oppression are not a recipe for hope and hard work. When things get bad enough, we often retreat, we protect our own, we wait. When life is comfortable, we often take things for granted and deny what we do not directly experience. Venezuela is suffering, but it’s not at war. It’s not overrun by the likes of ISIS. And there appear to be enough educated, connected, stubborn, hopeful people there to keep trying to turn the tide. At least so far.

So how do we cultivate, here at home, the sense of urgency that can inspire action? We’re beginning to see it in California, which is in its fourth year of severe drought, where citizens and lawmakers are waking up. As educators, how can we more effectively engage our students, parents and alumni in conversations about real-world problems, and inspire them to help solve them?

In an increasingly globalized world, I often felt at home in Venezuela. We are all part of a larger human family, and we are all struggling (whether from nations rich or poor, free or less free) with the essential questions of how to live good, productive, and healthy lives, and how to help each other, within our communities and institutions, achieve this common human goal.

I returned home feeling mostly inspired. I hope to be part of an ongoing conversation with my new found colleagues about how education can, in its own small way, contribute to building a more desirable and sustainable Caracas and Venezuela. I’m communicating regularly with them: I’m sending them information on opportunities and initiatives that may be of interest; I’m suggesting projects that would cost little and might make a difference for a school or a consortium of universities. Though resources are scarce, people are hungry for positive change.

Protostar: A New Tool for Measuring Sustainability in K-12 Schools

What Is It?

A new sustainability self-assessment and rating tool for K-12 schools offers a comprehensive definition of sustainability in practice.  For most schools sustainability is taken to mean environmental responsibility (or campus greening).  Protostar expands this definition to embody the triple bottom line of environmental health, social well-being, and economic viability, aspiring to translate the international, Agenda 21 concept of sustainability (or sustainable development) into a roadmap for education.  It’s a powerful rating tool designed to help schools track their performance, report their progress openly and transparently, and benchmark against their peers.

Protostar ( was developed in 2013 and launched in March 2014 with a grant from the U.S. based E.E. Ford Foundation.  A project of the Eight Schools Association, a prominent group of New England boarding schools, plus Berkshire School, Protostar was adapted from a well-established tool for colleges and universities called STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System;  For all intents and purposes, Protostar is nearly identical to the 1.2 version of STARS (now available in 2.0).  Protostar will evolve and grow, just as STARS has done.

The Protostar rating system measures a variety of environmental, social and economic “credits” from energy, food and curriculum, to diversity, affordability, staff hiring/cost of living, community service, and risk management.  These are organized within three categories as follows:

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Effective Sustainability Planning

In my previous blog I analyzed a recent environmental sustainability survey of independent schools in the U.S.  I noted the following result: 56% of respondents said they have strategic plans that include sustainability.  While that sounds impressive, strategic plans are really only as good as their actual intent.


I spoke with two former heads of school who had different things to say about strategic planning.  “The truth is that just because an item is in a strategic plan doesn’t mean for a minute that it’s going to get serious attention,” said one.  “As you know, many strategic plans molder in the files.  Certain things go into strategic plans simply to mollify some constituency, though there is no serious intention from the powers that be to put them near the top of the list.”  The other had this to say:  “I am a strong proponent of strategic planning based on experience at my last school and preparing quite a few plans on boards at other schools.  Five years is a minimum for long term thinking in my view.  You accomplish more with a plan, and you have a better chance of documenting success over time.” Continue reading

State of Sustainability in Independent Schools

sustschoolA September 2013 national survey on environmental sustainability in independent schools gives us the latest picture of how schools are interpreting and managing this challenge.  (Click here for Paul Chapman’s survey report.)

Some good news

  • The vast majority of respondents (86%) reported that they are installing energy efficient lights and HVAC systems.  Given that how we understand and use energy over the next several decades will impact our well being for generations to come, this is very good news. Efficiency is a critical piece of the puzzle. Continue reading

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