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:

EDUCATION: Co-Curricular; Curriculum

OPERATIONS: Buildings; Climate; Dining Services; Energy; Grounds; Purchasing; Transportation; Waste; and Water

PLANNING, ADMINISTRATION, ENGAGEMENT: Coordination & Planning; Diversity & Affordability; Human Resources; Investment; and Public Engagement

Participating schools are given a rating – Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Platinum – according to the number of points they earn in each category.  Interested schools do not have to commit to submitting their data for an official rating, however.  They are also welcome to participate in Protostar (and STARS) as “reporters,” allowing them to save data without it becoming public and gain access to other schools’ information.


To date six schools have earned official Protostar ratings and more than 30 schools have expressed interest in or are working on the assessment.  By contrast, STARS 1.0 was launched in January 2010 and so far 653 institutions have registered to use it and 314 institutions have earned a STARS rating.

On the Record

To get a clearer picture of the benefits of using this tool, I interviewed several STARS and Protostar users.  I’ve compiled the answers in bullet form and included selected quotations below.

Q- How has STARS/Protostar helped advance sustainability at your institution?

  • Legitimized sustainability
  • Provided a great framework for a comprehensive assessment of our sustainability practices
  • Helped us identify opportunities for improvement
  • Targeted areas for improvement that may be very difficult to pursue but need air time, such as investment
  • Provided common vocabulary with which to talk about sustainability across departments
  • Identified areas where we could improve our metrics of sustainability
  • Informed our Sustainability Master Plan
  • Allowed for best practice sharing
  • Provided a benchmark against peer campuses

“For a campus that is just starting out, STARS provides an excellent road map. For campuses that are further along, as we were, STARS provided a great tool for assessing our progress.”

– Nurit Katz, Chief Sustainability Officer, UCLA; STARS Steering Committee member

“STARS helped legitimize sustainability on our campus. It’s part of what a campus is expected to deliver. Less of my time is spent selling sustainability’s value proposition.”
– Dave Newport, Director, Environmental Center, University of Colorado Boulder

“STARS enables a more dispassionate conversation about investment (as opposed to the defensive reaction you get, say, from fossil divestment picketers), learning outcomes, and inclusive strategic planning. We have been told ‘no’ on certain credits because they’re too expensive or too politically difficult to achieve. But three years later, we get to come back to those credits and next time could be different.”
– Dave Newport

“Protostar pushed us to adopt an official definition and decide how best to contextualize sustainability both inside and outside the classroom.”
– Frank Barros, Sustainability Director, Berkshire School

STARS gave me a tool to communicate Alfred State’s sustainability performance more clearly to both internal and external audiences.”
– Julian Dautremont-Smith, Chief Sustainability Officer, Alfred State College; STARS Steering Committee member



NOTE:  Though there hasn’t been a formal program evaluation of STARS, its host organization, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), has been asking a related question in a post-submission survey (click on image to enlarge). 

Q- To what extent has STARS/Protostar broadened the sustainability conversation to include its social and economic dimensions?  

  • Being able to point to a national rating system that clearly lays out the social and economic areas of sustainability makes it easier to explain.
  • The social and economic dimensions were championed by our English and history classes.
  • Protostar helped inform collaborative efforts between the Dean of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, the Community Service Director, the Director of Global Initiatives, the Mountain Program Director, the Academic Dean and the Sustainability Director.

“STARS has made people aware of sustainability’s broader social context pretty well—but STARS by itself does not supply the agency to really engage in that arena.  People are still unsure what to do about it.”
– Dave Newport

STARS has facilitated conversations with a few folks who didn’t see their work as particularly related to ‘sustainability’, but I’m not sure the extent to which that understanding has trickled up to leadership or trickled down to students.
–  Julian Dautremont-Smith

“We are just beginning the conversation of looking at social and economic dimensions in addition to environmental dimensions.  In many schools these other areas are addressed by other departments, but Protostar may open up the discussion so that these departments see themselves as part of sustainability.”
– Jill Robinson, Senior Manager for Sustainability and Natural Resources, Facilities Management, Phillips Exeter Academy

Q- How would you improve STARS/Protostar?

  • It’s continuously improving, like LEED, and will continue to grow and adapt to a rapidly changing field, and feedback from stakeholders.
  • Biggest issue is its lack of 3rd party review.  Self-reporting is never going to be taken as seriously.
  • Time demand is significant.  Without substantial student and staff support, this can be debilitating for a single staffer.  Hopefully, over time it moves from the sustainability professionals’ desk into Institutional Research’s common data set.
  • Still suffers from data overload. It needs further and more substantial streamlining.
  • Many credits still have subjective thresholds or regional influences that undercut relevance or limit applicability, respectively.
  • Improve the ability of users to benchmark their performance with peer institutions.
  • Lots of credit updates, most of which will make the tool even more comprehensive.  I.e., Campus as a Classroom, Landscape Management Plan, changes in the way benchmark years are determined, Life Cycle Analysis use, etc.
  • Might help with the adoption if a school could start with just one category, like curriculum, and get a rating for that.
  • Might help to have workshops in which trainers could assist schools with data gathering and data entry.
  • Ongoing understanding and discussion of the relative weights of different categories.  For example, the finance section has a large number of points allocated to sustainable investments.
  • Address the fact that some credits, diversity for instance, are so indirect that the campus can have fairly low diversity and still get all the points.  Other credits have natural quantitative targets that are pretty solid (e.g., zero carbon).

“Making investments ‘sustainable’ can be very difficult for a school that has diversified investments.  More discussion and expert guidance from financial professionals on how this would actually work is needed in order for a school to understand and approach the topic of sustainable investment and how this is balanced with protecting the financial value of its assets.”

– Jill Robinson

Addressing these challenges would make STARS more legitimate and thus more widespread.  We need STARS to be more widely utilized and then there’s a good chance it would be embraced by US NEWS et al and rolled into overall campus rankings.  That is my Holy Grail quest for STARS.  If it becomes part of how campuses are ranked overall by credible sources, that’s the game changer.  But we’re a ways from that now.”
– Dave Newport

Off the Record

Of the 280 colleges and universities that are currently STARS rated, 61 are Gold certified.  One sustainability director at a public university, who preferred not to be named, said his school achieved a STARS Gold rating the first time through and it made some people on campus suspicious.  “We proved that you don’t have to do culture shifting stuff to get Gold.”  And, he added, “Clearly some schools are gaming the system.”

Another sustainability director I spoke with put it this way: “When we are compiling STARS credits, we reach out to relevant parties with ‘we need to get all the points for credit X in order to get to the next level or have more points than so and so’.  People are motivated by achievement and competition.”

None of this should be surprising.  Who doesn’t “game the system” now and then?  But what we desperately need is more “culture shifting stuff” at schools, colleges and universities.  We’re not going get the change we need by playing at the edges of what we teach and practice.  Which isn’t to say that STARS and Protostar aren’t pushing the envelope.  They are.  And no campus to date has earned a Platinum rating.

Protostar, like STARS, is a work in progress.  We’re all trying to construct, bit by bit, a better definition of progress.  That’s what sustainability is.  So if your school gets on the Protostar path – and sooner or later it should – please think critically about it and send in your feedback.  We need to keep improving.


Written by Wynn Calder

Wynn Calder

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