The World Needs More Sustainable Schools

Schools need to become more environmentally responsible and lead by example. According to the United Nations, young people are key actors in raising awareness, running educational programmes, promoting sustainable lifestyles, conserving nature, supporting renewable energy, adopting environmentally-friendly practices and implementing adaptation and mitigation projects. Sustainable schools offer healthy learning environments for young people to excel in their passions and realize their potential, which ultimately influences how they navigate life and perceive the world.

Schools of all types can minimize negative environmental impacts by changing how they operate starting with a few simple green practices and instilling this eco-mindedness into students. Below you will find an introductory guide providing a description of cost effective, easy to implement green initiatives targeted for K-12 schools/districts.

How School Buildings Impact the Environment and Student Learning

When school buildings are managed unsustainably, it can lead to environmental disruption in various forms that could affect staff, teacher and students’ mental and/or physical health along with academic learning. These may include:

  • Indoor air quality
  • Water quality
  • Food and nutrition
  • Education and accessibility
  • Lighting: natural vs. artificial lighting
  • Cleaning products used to sanitize the building
  • Access to a safe outside environment

Schools Must Be More Environmentally and Socially Responsible

Our education systems can play a major role in protecting the environment and the future of our younger generation. By implementing sustainable business and educational practices, school leaders, teachers and students will be given the unique opportunity to avoid some of the greatest threats towards environmental and human wellbeing.

Our youth constitute the majority of the population in many countries and have an increasingly strong social and environmental awareness, which has the power to transform our societies towards a low-carbon and climate resilient future (UNFCCC). Along with preserving ecological balance within communities, sustainable schools can cultivate future generations of environmental advocates, innovators and problem-solvers.

Here are eight sustainability initiatives that schools, cities, towns and educators can consider implementing when greening their schools:

1. Implement a green team/club for your school

Offer students the opportunity to volunteer to be a part of a green club that comes up with project ideas that they can implement and encourage their peers to join. Allowing the students to choose their project ideas will give them ownership and pride in their choices. Students have a passion for environmental and social causes. Close to half a million youth around the world have taken action on climate change through SGP (small grants programmes) projects in their homes, schools and communities.

Administrators, teachers and staff for the school can play a role as well by creating a green team at each building. Members can work on implementing a green certification such as the one offered by Green Business Bureau. This certification program allows members to choose a variety of initiatives based on their needs and complete them at their own pace. In addition, a green team can collaborate on aligning and implementing environmental curriculum for each grade level.

2. Start small with cost effective efforts that can bring a large return

Everyone enjoys the feeling of accomplishment. Choosing efforts/initiatives that are quick to implement and even cost effective can be the first projects tackled when making green changes. Start off by evaluating the school, take a survey or simply ask others what projects they would like to see done. Maybe go big and host a school contest asking students to submit their low cost green ideas. The ones chosen could receive some recognition in a newsletter or bulletin board. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Start a recycling program for classrooms, office spaces and the cafeteria
  • When applicable, choose digital means of communication instead of using paper, i.e. student lessons, parent newsletters, etc.
  • Reuse scrap paper for art projects
  • Utilize natural light by keeping windows clean and blinds open
  • Recycle or sell back used ink cartridges and technology
  • Give students the opportunity for fresh air and sunlight by hosting outdoor classrooms or lessons when appropriate

3. Purchase eco-friendly school supplies from sustainable suppliers

Think of all the things that schools need to purchase throughout the year to support learning. From office supplies, cleaning products, furniture, curriculum manipulatives, Science/STEM, literacy, PE equipment and art supplies. Try choosing eco-friendly products or purchase from a company that is green certified themselves such as School Specialty LLC. In addition, ask if the products can be shipped in fewer shipments to cut down on packaging waste and delivery emissions.

4. Offer rentals for school clubs and activities

Does your school have clubs such as chess club, band, or orchestra? Each of these groups require materials and equipment in order to run. Give parents the option to rent an instrument or chess set for the year. This will give parents a cost effective and green option for the program. Partnering with a local organization that provides these materials will also help support a local business.

5. Integrate environmental lessons into Science/STEM/STEAM curriculum

STEM hands-on learning can be integrated with “green” activities to teach students about their connection to the environment and sustainability, i.e. creating an art project outside or analyzing weather patterns. Parents will agree as, “more than 80% of parents in the U.S. support the teaching of climate change” and “a separate poll of teachers found that they are even more supportive, in theory — 86% agree that climate change should be taught” (NPR).

6. Encourage alternative transportation

Everyone from staff to students have to get to school in the mornings. Help reduce commute emissions by educating everyone about the alternative transportation options available to them. Help connect families and staff with nearby public transportation, organize a carpool program, and encourage walking or riding bikes to school.

7. Grow a school garden

Healthy foods help our students’ minds and bodies grow. Installing a school garden helps reduce emissions from sourcing food elsewhere and can turn into an entire curriculum unit. Giving students the opportunity to work with their hands outside and enjoy the food they have grown supports students’ fulfillment and can give them a sense of pride. Simple plots can be made in the corner of a playground or even planter boxes or planters would work for smaller spaces. Reach out to your community or PTO/PTA for donations.

8. Work towards obtaining the Green Ribbon Schools Award

Putting the work into green activities for your school is commendable, so why not share your success and be recognized for your efforts? The US Department of Education offers a prestigious Green Ribbon Schools certification. Follow this link for more information: US Department of Education Green Schools. Your efforts can also be guided and supported with the Green Business Bureau certification.

Excited to start but worried about funding projects?

Finding additional funding for projects in the education system can be tricky at times. If this is the case you may want to consider applying for grants to fund some of your projects. A few suggestions are:

  • United States Environmental Protection Agency: “Under the Environmental Education Grants Program, EPA seeks grant applications from eligible applicants to support environmental education projects that promote environmental awareness and stewardship and help provide people with the skills to take responsible actions to protect the environment.”
  • National Environmental Education Foundation: “NEEF offers a variety of grants and awards to help organizations engage their local community to improve the environment, increase diversity, and expand their work locally.”
  • EcoSolution™ grants: “EcoSolution™ grants range from $500-$2,500 and are intended to support solution-oriented, youth-led projects that result in real environmental outcomes. EcoSolution™ grants are available to educators working with youth in the United States.”
  • KEEN Effect grants: “We’re on a mission to make the outdoors more accessible to all, and connect kids with nature. Through cash grants and KEEN shoe donations, we support innovative programs that inspire outdoor access and inclusion for underserved communities of kids.”
  • E2 Energy to Educate: “Grant funds support projects designed to enhance students’ understanding of science and technology, and inspire them to think differently about energy.”
  • Dominion Energy Environmental Education and Stewardship grants: Many local and state energy organizations provide educational grants like this one.
  • Kids Gardening: “Designed to further the mission of the Klorane Botanical Foundation, the Budding Botanist Grant will help our youngest citizens learn about plants, explore their world and inspire them to take care of the life they discover in their local ecosystems.”

Sustainable Schools And Eco-Friendly Education Overview

Schools are a community of people and the students are our next generation. We can work together to give them the future environment they deserve. Schools need to take a more active role both in becoming more sustainable and teaching students how to become more environmentally and socially responsible. Whether it’s beginning a recycling program and starting a green club or taking more ambitious steps to switch to alternative energy or earn a green certification, the green choices schools make today make all the difference. The shift towards sustainable schools will continue to grow as more communities, governments and organizations come together to secure a healthy, livable future for the youth.

About the Author

Maggie Okponobi

Maggie’s career started in the education sector as a teacher before committing to the Peace Corps and educational development in The Gambia, where she helped establish an Early Childhood Education school that now is serving 265 students in counting. After returning to the U.S., Maggie worked as Funding Coordination Manager at School Specialty, a company that provides necessary educational supplies for schools, and helped transform the company into a successful sustainable organization. Now Maggie runs her own consulting firm to promote “sustainable steps to a better future” and educate organizations on the benefits and savings possible through adoption of green technology. With Maggie’s diverse experience in education, environmental science, and program management, plus exceptional interpersonal skills, she seeks to form lasting relationships with Key Opinion Leaders to make plans into a reality.

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