Sustainability in K-12 schools can manifest in many inspirational ways that go far deeper than the buildings, the policies, and even the curriculum. School sustainability that is purpose- and values-driven is connected to larger, more meaningful short- and long-term impacts. Purpose and values help build our “why” and our will so that our priorities, actions, time, effort, and money all come into alignment with what we care about most. At the heart of the intersection between education and sustainability is fostering people who care about themselves, each other, and the world around them. The Green & Healthy Schools Academy (GHSA) provides the space for schools to illuminate how their purpose and values as an educational institution are closely aligned with sustainability. This builds the will to not only create healthy, happy, and thriving places to learn, but also to foster a community of people who seek to make the world a more livable and beautiful place for all. We are pleased to share with you vignettes of purpose- and values-driven sustainability from three schools – all of which have been part of Green Building Alliance’s GHSA over the past several years.
ENVIRONMENTAL CHARTER SCHOOL AT FRICK PARK
Changing culture requires aligning behavior and relationships with the values of the organization. The Environmental Charter School (ECS) at Frick Park has had a clear understanding of its core values for many years (catalyst, character, collaboration, and commitment), but only recently could it shift its culture to fully embrace them. What helped create ECS’ formula for success? Essentially, it is an integrated approach built on relationships, risk-taking, and inspiration. Long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with students and partners, between staff, and even with vendors, are central to ECS’ culture. Here’s what that actually means in practice. About a year ago, ECS’ operations manager, lunch lady, school nurse, and custodian got together to discuss ways to improve student health across their departments, most specifically related to the effective implementation of green cleaning. Plain as it sounds, it’s actually a rare occurrence in schools. “I actually wept when I saw it,” says Nikole Sheaffer, innovation director for ECS.
“This meeting embodied everything we have been striving for. It did not emerge as a directive from administration or as a reaction to a problem. It was done proactively -- and it grew organically out of ECS’ culture.”
ECS’ new culture encourages stepping out of one’s comfort zone and being ready to take risks when solving a problem. Inspiration has been central to changing hearts and minds of staff, notably through a cohort of educators participating in the GHSA School Sustainability Culture Program. But the turning point was when ECS’ CEO Jon McCann was pushed to ask himself the question that now drives his work: “What will I tell my kids that I did to address the greatest challenges of our time?” This question has become a motivating force for both McCann and ECS, and pushes every staff member to find their own questions and narratives to inspire their work. This is when all of ECS’ sustainability activities start to connect and add up to something greater than their parts. Outdoor learning, school gardens, cafeteria composting, community service projects, indoor air quality improvements, and, of course, green cleaning, work toward a greater vision, which collectively answers Mr. McCann’s guiding question.
PITTSBURGH LANGLEY K-8
Katie Spalla is a 4th grade science teacher at Pittsburgh Langley K-8, which serves several of Pittsburgh’s most challenged communities. This past year, her students engaged in experiential learning activities, such as Recycling Wars and seed-to-table lessons about growing and preparing food. The secret to Spalla’s success, however, is not in the lessons or iPads. “It’s all about my relationship with students,” she stated. “If they don’t trust me, they aren’t going to try something new.” Spalla was able to cultivate this student-teacher trust through honesty and open-ended dialogue about what students are feeling and experiencing. Taking time to build trust is what opened the door for Langley’s students to become engaged — starting their own Recycling Club, digging in the dirt and harvesting vegetables, and developing a sense of confidence and ownership. How does Spalla know her approach is working? Students voluntarily give up their lunch and recess time to collect recyclables. Some students even bring recyclables in from home, demonstrating that they not only understand what recycling is, but that they care enough to lug materials into school.
Spalla is part of a committed Langley staff that strives to provide a safe and loving environment to students. “Kids don’t choose their situation,” explains Dr. Rodney Necciai, Langley’s principal, “but we can empower our students with education and life experiences to choose their own path in life.”
CHARTIERS VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT
Chartiers Valley School District (CVSD) recently broke ground on new middle and high school buildings, which could become two of the most influential school buildings the Pittsburgh region has yet seen. “We knew a conventional approach wasn’t going to work for us,” said Dr. Brian White, CVSD’s superintendent. “These schools need to be an expression of who we are and what we hope our students will become as citizens of our region and world. To achieve that, we have to try something new.”
CVSD’s new building process is innovative due to two different but related approaches. The first was a set of guiding principles the CVSD school community agreed upon, which became the compass for setting priorities and making decisions. The second was the truly integrative design process these buildings went through. To be most effective, the integrative design of buildings requires patience, collaboration, and, above all, inclusion. To ensure broad community involvement, CVSD formed two School Design Advisory Teams comprised of students, teachers, administrators, and community members. Each team discussed what 21st century learning should look like, visited innovative schools around the country, and explored the types of learning spaces that work best.
The result? Two beautifully designed buildings that will be at the pinnacle of performance, health, and innovative learning; a community committed to and invested in education; and a prototype of what is possible when inspiring education and values-driven design come together.
This article originally appeared in Viride magazine.