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.
  • 83% of schools have established a garden on campus and 59% have in some way integrated gardening into the curriculum.  This is heartening in large part because it means that the push to connect (or reconnect) kids with nature is alive and well.  Hands on, experiential, outdoor learning may be as fundamental to sustainability education as any other quality (The Green Schools Alliance has made connecting to nature a priority.)
  • 56% of respondents said they have strategic plans that include sustainability.  This number seems surprisingly high to me.  But it is encouraging because it means that these ideas and practices are being institutionalized.  They won’t go away when the faculty champion or committed head retires.

Some not-so-good news

  • Most of the leadership in sustainability appears to be coming from faculty and students (76%), followed by commitment from the head and board (55%).  These numbers might sound pretty good, but they mean that a little over half of schools have encouragement from the top down.  In practice, it is very hard for committed faculty and students to get much done without that administrative support.  The most exemplary sustainability programs are at schools that have both.  In my experience, even a 50% rate sounds high.
  • Only 26% of schools have constructed one or more buildings using “green” criteria.  This isn’t necessarily bad if we assume that most schools are not building new buildings.  After all, new buildings are expensive and they leave large ecological footprints no matter how green they are.  But more telling may be the 21% of respondents who claim to have renovated one or more buildings using green criteria.  This is discouraging since most schools have to renovate on a regular basis.  We know that buildings contribute up to 30% of global annual green house gas emissions and consume up to 40% of all energy.  And, according to architects I’ve spoken with, buildings that earn the equivalent of LEED Silver certification are now “standard practice” and cost little more than conventional construction.  We can thank the US Green Building Council for raising the bar.  But as schools, we should strive for no less every time we build.
  • 27% of schools have sustainability coordinators, with or without compensation or release time.  Over and over again, we see that these positions are critical to ensuring guidance, continuity and success over time.
  • Green purchasing is reported at only 22% of schools.  This is important because green purchasing influences the supply side of the local and global economies of which we are a part.  When schools join other schools in purchasing consortia, that power increases dramatically.

Some recommendations

LEADERSHIP – Cultivate the support of heads of school.  At individual schools, this begins with appealing directly to the head, or, if that is unproductive, identifying allies on the leadership team and working with them to bring the head on board.  At the national level, this means asking our state and regional associations to make environmental sustainability a regular topic at their annual heads of school conferences.

GREEN BUILDINGS – Institute a green building policy.  Unlike colleges and universities, independent schools have fewer formal policies (because they’re less bureaucratic).  But a Building and Renovation Policy is exactly the kind of policy they ought to have.  It keeps one’s feet to the fire and ensures that the green features of every building project are not up for debate.  Example: “Every building or renovation will meet LEED Gold standards or better.”

SUSTAINABILITY COORDINATORS – Appoint a sustainability coordinator or director.  Or consider appointing co-directors.  Give them titles, compensation or release time, and real responsibility.

GREEN PURCHASING – Institute a green purchasing policy.  An official policy helps ensure consistency across all departments, offices, and custodial services.  Consider the option of forming (or joining) a green purchasing consortium with other local and regional schools to enhance collective buying power.  (For a comprehensive policy example, see the Oberlin College Green Purchasing Policy.)

ENERGY EFFICIENCY – Measure energy efficiency and show improvement over time.  As noted, schools claim to be doing a lot of this (86%).  But it’s very hard to know how much these schools are actually doing.  “Greenwashing” is always a risk, as Paul Chapman notes in his report’s conclusion.  There is no doubt that some schools are not living up to the their sustainability claims.  This is not surprising, of course, since schools are self-promotional and want to look good.  Holding ourselves to strong standards, however, will help all schools improve for real.  And we will all benefit as a result.


Written by Wynn Calder

Wynn Calder

1 Comment on State of Sustainability in Independent Schools

Sadie said : Report 8 months ago

Great article and topic, Wynn. I just want to chime in with a comment about an easy, sustainable water efficient, disposable plastic reducing fixture that all schools should have: Bottle Filling Stations. Not only are there now very energy efficient options, but they encourage users to utilize reusable bottles instead of buyers disposable plastic water bottles that fill up our landfills. I wrote a blog about it if you''d like to learn more about it -

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