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.

Written by Wynn Calder

Wynn Calder

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