While over the last thirty years environmental advocates have, with varying degrees of success, targeted government agencies and large ecologically destructive industries for reform, schools, to a large degree, have slipped below the radar screen. Yet, as this paper has shown, our educational institutions are often environmental health hazards in and of themselves. Collectively, our schools are also significant consumers of natural resources and therefore contributors to a broad variety of society’s environmental problems. The ecological state of our schools today is that they are, generally speaking, unsustainable, often–unhealthy places. And there’s at least one in every community.
The good news, also touted throughout this report is that there are many indications of positive change. National and local healthy school networks of parents, professionals and educators are organizing to address children’s environmental health problems. Related to this, the growing efforts to design green buildings have entered the educational realm, spawning a variety of initiatives to promote healthy, high–performance schools. Some universities and colleges are going solar, providing a potential example for K–12. People are increasingly organizing to get unhealthy food—soda, junk food and fast food––out of our school systems, and replace it, in some cases, with healthy food grown locally, on a small scale. School gardens and green school yard initiatives are sprouting and flourishing across the country. And all of these initiatives, plus many more, are regularly tied into programs designed to make our kids, and therefore our society, more eco–literate: teaching, learning and engaging on issues of health, environment, community and sustainability is happening in one form or another, almost everywhere.
Despite these positive steps forward, many of the laudable efforts to transform and green different aspects of our schools remain unfortunately isolated from one another. We are all working on our individual goals. And in some respects this focus is good and important for achieving tangible results. Yet the fragmentation—the lack of coherence—of what we might call the Sustainable and Healthy Schools Movement weakens all of our work, diminishing the ability to achieve what this report argues is the goal of creating a holistically green and healthy school system. Said another, more positive way, the more this fabulous patchwork of initiatives comes together as a coherent tapestry, the more powerful effect and influence the composition will have on those who come into contact with it.
It is also clear that many of the transformations envisioned in this paper cannot happen unless they are part and parcel of a much broader transformation of our values, laws, and funding priorities nationally, at a state level and locally. But certainly, making changes in our schools can also help move this transformation along. For while schools may remain under the radar for many environmental advocates, they also have the potential to lead the way in finding solutions to the plethora of problems that we face. If school districts, for instance, begin to adopt the Precautionary Principle, as Los Angeles has done with respect to pesticides, it advances an approach to public health, the right to know, and environmental problem solving that will have repercussions in the greater social and political dynamic. If, as part of a precautionary approach school districts purchase “green” cleaning materials, recycled office products, and sustainably produced, healthy food, while generating their own renewable energy, they can begin to expand the markets for these products and therefore their economic viability.
There are many ways to create greener and healthier schools
As we discussed in the introduction, this report aims to accomplish four things: First, it attempts to envision what a new reality of sustainable and healthy K–12 schools across the United States might look like. Second, it provides a reality check, zeroing in on just how unhealthy and unsustainable our current educational institutions are. Third, it bases its hope and optimism in the fabulous mosaic of possibility represented by the thousands of disparate efforts around the country to help create green and healthy schools. Fourth and finally, it attempts to group many of these wonderful efforts into a metaphorical green and healthy school building, comprised of a foundation made up of the Precautionary Principle, and four interrelated pillars.
Within each of these pillars the report has articulated specific steps already underway or those that can be taken to advance the various health and sustainability agendas we discuss. These measures include legislative initiatives, possible state or school district policies, school–wide and classroom level actions.
What we have not discussed up until now are mechanisms for moving from a vision of a holistic, healthy, sustainable school system—of moving from the rough sketch of the foundation and four pillars that this report necessarily is––toward an actual blueprint, and toward a tangible real deal.
One step is to organize and pass a school board resolution as a framework for moving forward
There are, no doubt, many ways to get there. We would like to propose one approach for bringing these efforts together and moving the agenda forward.
Imagine, then, one last time: you are working with a group of parents, teachers, principals, district staff and advocacy groups. Your goal is to get your local school board to pass a resolution promoting sustainable and healthy schools. Then imagine the board discussing, debating and approving the resolution, which creates a proactive framework for fostering sustainable and healthy schools (see Sample School Board Resolution). And finally imagine working with your district to take the first steps toward implementing this vision.
Imagine now, hundreds of other school boards going through similar processes and adopting similar resolutions. Essentially, you are imagining the creation of a series of blueprints for green and healthy schools at the district level all across the country. By organizing around a school board resolution, disparate local groups working on issues from pesticides in schools to environmental education can join forces and work together, both to get the resolution passed, and then to implement it. Such a resolution can also begin to educate and convince decision–makers at the district, individual school and even classroom level to begin to envision and work toward this positive transformation of our schools. And it can provide a road map to help guide future decisions, whether they have to do with what kind of new bus fleet to purchase, criteria for new building design, school remodels, or how to create an economically viable, nutritious school lunch program.
Overall, this vision of building green and healthy schools, while teaching engaged children rooted in their communities may be a far cry from today’s reality. But we should not view it as impossible, and we should not let such reality get in the way of making a better world. Rather it is a challenge to be met.