What Is a Green School?

There are many ways to describe a green school, but all share a commitment to environmental sustainability. The elementary school students at the Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes Elementary School in Burlington, Vermont, expressed it well: “Sustainability is the belief that everything is interconnected.” Based on my work at Head-Royce and my case studies of other schools, I believe that there are five critical foundations in a green school. In his remarkable book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge demonstrates how systems thinking is at the heart of high-performing learning organizations. This means that environmentally sustainable green schools need to develop all five of these elements in an integrated fashion: 

  1. Efficient use of resources
  2. A healthy environment
  3. An ecological curriculum
  4. Nutritious food
  5. Sustainable community practices

It’s important to note at the outset that there is no “one best system” to develop these foundations; every school is unique, and each school can take its own path. But for a school to be a model green school, all elements have to be embraced. When they are, the organization as a whole begins to develop a “culture of sustainability,” one in which individual participants are empowered to make changes and all follow agreed-upon norms. Later in this chapter, I will illustrate these five foundations with the work being done in schools across the country.

Who Says It's A Green School?

As one might expect, many organizations have entered the field to certify that schools are green and environmentally sustainable. The Green Schools Initiative’s “Four Pillars of a Green School” offered early guidance on defining environmental sustainability in schools: green schools strive to be free of toxins; use resources sustainably; create a green, healthy place for children; and focus on environmental education.
In Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability, the Center for Ecoliteracy (CEL) offers four guiding principles for sustainable schools: 
  1. Nature is our teacher.
  2. Sustainability is a community practice.
  3. The real world is the optimal learning environment.
  4. Sustainable living is rooted in a deep knowledge of place.
Wisely, CEL observes that while there is “one movement,” there are “many routes” to becoming a green school.

In April 2011, the U.S. Department of Education announced the creation of a new Green Ribbon Schools program, which seeks to identify exemplary schools nationwide that feature energy efficiency and sustainability, healthy school environments, and educational programs  that prepare environmentally literate graduates.
Researcher Julian Dautremont-Smith at the University of Michigan and Berkshire School Sustainability Director Frank Barros have identified more than 35 different rating and recognition programs. Nationally, several certification programs exist for newly constructed and renovated school buildings, like the U.S. Green Building Council LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Program and the CHPS (Collaborative for High Performance Schools) Program. The National Wildlife Federation runs Eco-Schools USA to recognize green schools. The newly launched Green Schools National Network has identified Green School Design Essentials to promote environmental sustainability.
At the state level, there are a number of recognition programs; the Maryland Green Schools Program, administered by the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education (MAEOE) in conjunction with the Maryland Department of Education, is a strong example of a program that has certified nearly 400 of 2,000 schools in the state.
At the college and university level, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) has developed STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System) to measure sustainability in three areas –– Education and Research; Operations; and Planning, Administration, and Engagement –– and has several hundred participants.9 A group of nine New England boarding schools are currently adapting the STARS metrics for their use.
How to define and measure the performance of green schools is one of the key challenges facing the K–12 environmental sustainability movement.

How to Green Your School

The process of greening a school requires adherence to well-established principles of organizational change. Here I offer three possible approaches. The first articulates the process we used at Head-Royce School in creating a model green school and which I now recommend through my work with Inverness Associates. The second represents the advice we followed from the Green Schools Initiative’s “7 Steps to a Green School.” And the third is the model from National Wildlife’s Eco-Schools, from which the Green Schools Initiative’s guidelines were drawn. As you can see from reviewing these three interrelated approaches, there is no one best system to transform a school.

Inverness Associates Green School Plan

  • Develop a mission statement articulating the principles of environmental sustainability, have a clear vision of how the school will look in the future, and incorporate those principles in the larger educational philosophy statement of the school.
  • Empower leadership, from the top down and the bottom up, with the head of school and the board establishing direction and with a sustainability director organizing the ongoing change process. The commitment of the head and the support of the board of trustees are crucial, expressed through strategic planning and the budget’s allocation of resources.
  • Organize the effort by establishing an Environmental Council composed of teachers, administrators, students, parents, and board members to provide overall direction and to focus on systemic changes. Green Teams of these constituent groups can plan and implement appropriate activities in their sphere of the school’s operation.
  • Focus on the five foundations to ensure emphasis on key priorities –– efficient use of resources, a healthy environment, an ecological curriculum, nutritious food, and sustainable community practices.
  • Develop a green plan: Conduct an audit of the school’s environmental sustainability, identify annual goals, create an action plan for improvement, assess accomplishments on a regular basis, and report the results to the community.
  • Follow a green school process that is appropriate for your school community, and regularly evaluate the strategic direction, current status, and near-term actions.


Green Schools Initiative: 7 Steps to a Green School

The Green Schools Initiative (GSI) was founded in 2004 by parents concerned about the environmental health and ecological sustainability of their schools. They mobilized to “catalyze and support ‘green’ actions by kids, teachers, parents, and policymakers” with the goals of eliminating toxics, using resources sustainably, creating green spaces and buildings, serving healthy food, and teaching stewardship.

The GSI website contains excellent resources, including tools to audit the school’s performance. These are GSI’s “7 Steps to a Green School”:
  1. Establish a Green Team or Eco-Committee.
  2. Adopt an environmental vision statement or planet pledge.
  3. Conduct a school environmental survey or audit. 
  4. Create a green school action plan. 
  5. Monitor and evaluate progress. 
  6. Integrate greening into the curriculum.
  7. Inform, involve, and celebrate!

Eco-Schools Program

The Eco-Schools program was started in 1994 to “model environmentally sound practices, provide support for greening the curriculum and enhance science and academic achievement.” It currently operates in 58 countries in Europe, North and South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania.
In 2008, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) became the Eco-Schools host for K–12 schools in the United States. The Eco-Schools website contains excellent resources for greening a school, including the Seven Steps:
  1. Eco-Schools Committee
  2. Environmental review
  3. Action plan
  4. Monitoring and evaluation
  5. Curriculum work
  6. Informing and involving
  7. Eco-code (a mission statement) 
This is an excerpt from Greening America's Schools. Paul Chapman is former head of school at Head-Royce School (California) and now leads Inverness Associates.