Making Sustainable Strides: Greening America's School Systems
In the U.S., there are more than 130,000 K-12 schools and more than 4,300 colleges and universities. Schools are at the core of our fundamental American values and culture, and though we acknowledge their importance, we have not yet made them our priority as they begin to require repair and renewed infrastructure. In the 2016 report State of Our Schools: America’s K-12 Facilities, the Center For Green School’s estimates that the US is only spending about 2/3 of what school facilities need to properly function and maintain themselves annually-- lacking over $46 billion each year. But this problem isn’t going away any time soon, as the population increases and as school conditions deteriorate, escalating the need for new school buildings and updated infrastructure. Also, since school system funding varies widely from state to state--even county to county-- it becomes very difficult for impoverished areas to adequately maintain and renew school facilities. How can the US solve this colossal education infrastructure issue? Organizations like the United States Green Building Council, The Center For Green Schools, and even the US department of Education believe the solution is to “green” America’s school systems.
But what is a green school? The Center For Green Schools defines a green school as a healthy environment conducive to learning while saving energy, resources and money. The idea behind green schools is to promote green building design for K-12 schools as well as college campuses. This includes “greening” the operations and maintenance of existing schools, but also introducing sustainability and healthy living into curriculum and communities. In recent years, the U.S. Department of Education has taken action towards promoting green schools, launching its Green Ribbon Schools award program in 2011. The program is setup to ask schools, colleges and universities to show their progress toward adapting three green building pillars they believe are the key when it comes to greening US school systems.
The Three Education Department-Green Ribbon Schools Pillars:
1. Reduced Environmental Impact and Costs
- Schools that commit to:
- Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by using an energy audit to make cost-effective energy efficiency improvements, taking conservation measures, and/or using/purchasing renewable energy sources/green power, improving water quality, efficiency, and conservation
- Reducing solid and hazardous waste production through increased recycling, reduced consumption, and improved management of hazardous waste
2. Expanding their use of alternative transportation, through active promotion of locally-available, energy-efficient options and implementation of alternative transportation supportive projects and policies
Improved Health and Wellness
- Schools that commit to:
- Having an integrated school environmental health program based on an operations and facility-wide environmental management system that considers student, visitor, and staff health and safety in all practices related to design, construction, renovation, operations, and maintenance of schools and grounds
Having high standards of coordinated school health, including social and psychological services, nutrition, fitness, and quantity of quality outdoor time for both students and staff.
3. Effective Environmental and Sustainability Education
- Schools that commit to:
- Teaching about the interdisciplinary relationships between environmental, energy, and human systems
- Promoting classes covering STEM content knowledge and cleantech awareness and skills
Development of civic engagement knowledge and skills and students’ application of such knowledge and skills to address sustainability and environmental issues in their community.
**for more information about the three pillars and the Green Ribbon Award Program see:target="_blank">http://www2.ed.gov/programs/green-ribbon-schools/factsheet.pdf
To further show support for these pillars, in 2013, the Education Department added the Green Strides Portal, connecting all school communities with the free, publically-available green building resources. The Green Strides portal functions as one-stop shop for green resources, webinars, case studies, promising practices, and collaboration so that all schools can honor each pillar of the program. In 2015, to offer a more expansive and user-friendly portal, Green Strides was incorporated into the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and was moved off of ed.gov. Though this move helps increase green school awareness by working through the state chapters of the USGBC, it also reveals that the Department of Education has not officially been authorized by Congress to administer grant programs that are exclusively focused on school sustainability.
There is still a long way to go when it comes to “greening” our national school systems. The Center For Green Schools of the USGBC believes that what we really need is a whole-system approach to sustainability, requiring schools and campuses to not only shift their practices and policies but to also shift their school culture surrounding green practices. This initiative will only succeed when each individual school’s staff, faculty, students, parents and leadership come together to create the conditions necessary to repair school infrastructure and practices in a sustainable, green manner.
Do you think we’ll be able to achieve the Center For Green Schools initiative? Do schools in your community abide by the three green school pillars? Comment below with your opinions and thoughts.
For more information you can sign up for the Green Strides Portal Newsletter to receive information on resources, opportunities, webinars, and practices:
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I am highly motivated college student with strong leadership, organizational, and interpersonal skills. I am very interested in political science, economics, and language and cultural studies, and I intend on pursuing each of these throughout my college experience. My goal is to finish out my undergraduate years with degrees in both international studies and economics with a minor in political science. I hope to work my way up through state government and then onto the national government to promote an environmental economic agenda that will bring the US closer to reaching its climate goals.
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