Environmental Education and Sustainability

Summer 2014

By Paul Chapman

In the fall of 2013, Inverness Associates conducted a comprehensive national survey of environmental education and sustainability among private independent schools. The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and 14 regional and state associations supported the research.

The survey sought to understand how schools’ environmental education programs develop environmental literacy among students and how schools are becoming more environmentally sustainable in their practices and programs.

Overall, the survey demonstrates widespread engagement with environmental education and, more broadly, environmental sustainability in independent schools. Interest in environmental education and sustainability is high, especially among administrators, faculty, and students. Many of the schools surveyed have established an environmental mission, policy, and strategic plan. Some schools have sustainability coordinators, but volunteers lead most of the efforts. Financial support for environmental education and sustainability is modest, with half the schools spending less than $5,000 per year on nonconstruction activities. A great majority of surveyed schools are working to lower their environmental impact through waste reduction, recycling, composting, and energy efficiency. A large number of them have gardens and are offering nutritious food. A quarter of the surveyed schools are incorporating green building practices in new construction and renovation.

The survey also points to key needs and challenges that warrant examination for further progress. A high percentage of surveyed heads said they would like more money, time, and staff for this work. They also want better organization and designated leadership, a greater commitment from the board of trustees, an overall sustainability plan for their schools, and enhanced staff training.

Key Findings

Here are some of the survey’s key findings:

School Organization

  • Interest in environmental sustainability is high among administrators, students, and faculty (extremely/very interested: 71 percent, 66 percent, and 62 percent). Interest is lower among staff, parents, and board (47 percent, 43 percent, 39 percent), but still at a level that underscores the importance of schoolwide attention.
  • Concern for the environment motivates sustainability efforts (80 percent); the desire to save money is also a factor, but not as salient as others (35 percent).
  • Green school efforts are most often led by engaged faculty and students (76 percent), and, in a majority of schools, also by the head and board (55 percent).
  • About a quarter of schools have a sustainability coordinator (27 percent) who works with a small group of two to five volunteer staff and parents.
  • Some schools now incorporate environmental education and sustainability in their mission and priorities (to a very great/great extent: 42 percent).
  • Most schools provide only modest financial support (less than $5,000) for green initiatives (49 percent); a sixth spend more than $25,000 annually (16.8 percent).
  • More than a quarter of the schools have been recognized for their sustainability efforts (28 percent).

The School’s Environmental Footprint

  • Waste reduction, recycling, and/or composting programs are widespread (93 percent), although, in interviews, many report the need to measure and track progress toward a goal of zero waste.
  • Numerous schools are pursuing energy-efficiency initiatives (86 percent), and some schools have benchmarked energy use and documented their financial savings.
  • About half the schools are reducing hazardous chemicals (56 percent) and adopting sustainable landscaping and water use (45 percent).
  • Green building practices are becoming more common, including renewable energy (31 percent), LEED-certified­construction (26 percent), and renovation (21 percent).
  • One-fifth of schools have a green purchasing policy (22 percent).

Food and Nutrition Programs

  • Many schools have a vegetable garden (84 percent), link the garden to the curriculum (59 percent), serve garden produce in the cafeteria (53 percent), and serve local and/or organic food (44 percent).
  • Almost half the schools have a wellness policy (47 percent).

Environmental Education in the Curriculum

  • In most schools, environmental education takes place outside the classroom, in outdoor education (79 percent), service-learning projects (73 percent), using the campus as a hands-on learning laboratory (70 percent), or civic engagement projects with environmental themes (65 percent).
  • More than half of the schools indicate environmental education is taught in a student environmental club (58 percent).
  • Schools are trying to integrate environmental and sustainability concepts in STEM classes (72 percent) and across the curriculum (51 percent).
  • Environmental education is integrated in the curriculum most successfully in lower school (45 percent), but less so in middle school and upper school (35 percent and 28 percent).
  • Almost all school-based environmental education curriculum development is initiated by teachers (92 percent); only a few schools have professional development in environmental education (very great/great extent: 15 percent).
  • Very few schools have a written definition of environmental literacy (7 percent), an environmental literacy requirement (5 percent), or a means of assessing environmental literacy (9 percent).

Informal Environmental Education and the Connection to Schools

  • A large number of heads believe informal environmental education is extremely or very important in helping students achieve environmental literacy (65 percent).
  • Virtually all schools report using a variety of field-trip experiences — outdoor programs, science museums, zoos, aquariums, parks, and farms — to promote environmental education.
  • As one head observed, “Our outdoor education program and annual school retreats have as much, if not more, impact on our students than our formal classes in environmental science.”
  • Another observed, “Our kids are outside a lot, and the environment is part of the fabric of their daily lives.”


Based on the survey, interviews, and school site visits, here are 10 areas where all independent schools can take steps to become more environmentally sustainable:

Organization — Make environmental education and sustainability a high priority; establish a green council; craft a green mission, goals, and a plan; and report progress on a regular basis.

Leadership — Appoint a compensated sustainability coordinator with responsibilities to develop and direct the school’s overall sustainability plan.

Resource Efficiency — Benchmark use of electricity, oil/natural gas, water, and waste disposal, and make systematic plans to reduce usage and to document savings.

Facilities — When renovating or constructing buildings, utilize best practices that conform to green standards.

Healthy Operations — Adopt policies for green purchasing, hazardous waste and pest management, and school wellness.

Nutritious Food — Evaluate and improve the school’s food program to focus on good nutrition and health and local, seasonal offerings.

Curriculum — Adopt a definition of environmental literacy, use it to audit the curriculum, and evaluate ways to incorporate environmental education across the academic program.

Extracurricular Program — Enhance opportunities for students to learn about the environment outside the classroom and in nature, and incorporate informal environmental education into the overall school culture.

Students — Include students in meaningful leadership roles in making the school more environmentally sustainable.

Partnerships — Connect with the wider environmental education and sustainability community, provide enhanced professional development, and help create a robust network of green independent schools.

Paul Chapman

Paul Chapman is executive director at Inverness Associates. He can be reached at [email protected].