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Creating change at the school district level is hard. Systemic changes need to be implemented. Educational programs and teaching and learning focus needs to be shifted. Culture needs to be created and supported. These efforts require careful coordination and change champions at the district and site level. Because of this difficult balance, we see very few models of school districts that are addressing environmental stewardship.

In the Encinitas Union School District (a K-6 school district of 5,400 students located in San Diego County), we have been at this work for the past nine years. The roots of environmentalism run even deeper than that in our community. Although great progress has been made, it is only in the past few years that we have seen signs that we are approaching sustainability in this work.

As with most schools and districts, our work started in the easiest area of impact, system changes. We began at the district and site level with a group of dedicated staff, parents, district leaders, community supporters, and students. At the district level, a Green Team was formed that included the superintendent, facilities director, food service director, and representative volunteers from all schools. The task for the group was fairly straight-forward: how could the team help the district reduce its environmental footprint? At the site level, it was more action based. Site level teams took on the challenge of supporting a school garden and coordinating with the district Green Team to reduce lunchtime waste.

These early changes relied more on adults than students and focused on changes that were easier to implement yet paid visible dividends. The district Green Team began by studying the amount of waste generated at lunchtime. It was considerable. Their findings led to the creation of a waste management plan and a SCRAP cart that divided waste in different recycle cans. This effort was coordinated with the site teams who worked to improve existing school gardens or install a new school garden at every school. These efforts were then joined by a comprehensive recycle and compost plan that reduced lunchtime waste by 83% the first year. The district used this reduction in waste to cut their waste removal bill by $33,000. With that, the Green Team had its first win.

Baird Students in the Gardens – Source: Encinitas Union School District

The district next passed a large school bond that invested heavily in green upgrades. Over seven years, the district put solar panels on every campus. Solar tubes were also installed that brought natural light into classrooms and cut down on the need for artificial lighting. Water harvesting and reclaimed water use were brought to school sites. The use of chemicals was almost eliminated in district fields maintenance and cleaning. These changes and more were made in multiple areas. All over the district, a number of system changes were made that reduced the environmental footprint of the district and saved district dollars.

Despite these successes, something was still missing. Sensors could turn lights off but they did not change people’s understanding of why lights needed to be turned off. More and more, the district realized that system changes alone did not create the type of sustainability that was necessary. This could only be done by directly involving learners in the process.

One of our earliest efforts in this area started as a science experiment conducted by some of our fifth graders in conjunction with undergraduate students from the University of California, San Diego. This experiment measured the air quality in front of the school before and during parent drop-off. Their findings led students to promote an anti-idling campaign at that school, which ultimately led to an anti-idling campaign at all school sites. Student engagement from this activity was electric. Students had made a real difference and they realized how powerful their voice could be in helping to improve their environment. This led our district and site level leadership to recognize that the not-so-secret ingredient to our environmental change efforts was to involve students in the process.

The air quality study led to a number of other changes. Student Green Teams were activated at all sites. They not only cared for the school gardens but also ran the composting efforts. Student Green Teams began doing waste audits and helping with information campaigns on how to use the SCRAP carts.

Students were next brought in to help with the district’s Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPPP). All school districts must have a plan on file that documents how storm water runoff from all school sites is managed. This work is usually handled by consultants who come in and analyze the site, test the water and drains, write the report, and then present findings to the board and county government. Nothing on this list was beyond the capacity of empowered and supported fifth and sixth graders.

We started the program at two schools. Students applied for jobs on the team and then interviewed for their positions. The work then began. Soon, students were giving up lunch recess and before and after school times to check drains, test water samples, and write reports. They worked closely with people employed in the industry and tracked the flow of pollutants from their school to the ocean. That first year, students from La Costa Heights and El Camino Creek Elementary Schools came to the board meeting in power suits prepared to advocate for better storm water management. The board presentation was professional and dynamic in its message. Students were hooked. In a few years, we had programs at all nine schools with one school having so many students sign up that we needed multiple adult coaches to work with them. The district wrote a major grant to support pollution runoff improvements, and students quickly moved from implementing small best management practices, such as cleaning out or reducing waste around drains, to considering major best management practices with a $600,000 budget to spend. Students now had the power to implement their big ideas. Working with our business and facilities department, students helped lead every phase of the multiple projects put forward. They worked with architects, helped write bid specifications, did job walks with contractors, and ultimately helped the district install bio-swales, replace drains, and make major improvements in reducing pollutants. This program is ongoing, and students look forward to entering fifth grade when they can apply to be a storm water pollutant consultant.

One byproduct of this work was that our students were able to solve real world problems and share their findings and plans with an authentic audience. This had a direct impact on students who wanted to improve their writing and presentation skills. In addition to presentations to our school board and the county board of supervisors, our SWPPP students have also presented at a state water conference and at a national conference in Las Vegas for water pollution specialists. Their presentations were professional, informative, and well received by experts in the field. 

We now use this winning formula for every environmental effort we make and in other areas where student engagement leads to higher levels of learning and application. Most of our schools implemented energy teams to try and answer the question: “Now that we have solar panels and solar tubes, how can we reduce our energy use even further?” This led to student findings related to additional system changes (remove some of the sensors that turn on lights when someone enters a room, since we do not need them) and behavioral changes (open the solar tubes and turn off the lights). Students have made public service announcements educating other students on the benefits of walking to school, recycling, composting at home, and other helpful topics. Student inventors have created robots that plant gardens and new tools that make it easier to collect worm casings. All fifth-grade students are applying their research and design skills to help the district better use and retain water on the district farm. The possibilities for active learning around environmental issues are endless.

So, has this changed the culture and created sustainable environmental stewardship? The answer to this may not be apparent for years to come but the signs are positive. Students leaving our district feed into a seventh through twelfth grade school district. In the past few years, because of our students’ efforts, the junior highs and high schools in our area now have student Green Teams and one junior high has a SWPPP team. We are hearing from parents that our students are going home and teaching their families how to save energy, conserve water, and reduce waste. Our next generation of environmental stewards is ready for the challenge and this should give us all great hope for the future.

Dr. Timothy Baird – Source: Encinitas Union School District

About the Author

Timothy B. Baird, Ed.D., Superintendent, Encinitas Union School District (CA) – The Encinitas Union School District (EUSD) has a long-standing reputation of high student achievement and has been acknowledged for its innovative learning opportunities. As Superintendent, Dr. Timothy Baird’s leadership in green initiatives and environmental stewardship has garnered state and national recognition for conservation efforts, including selection by the U.S. Department of Education as a National Green Ribbon District. Dr. Baird led the implementation of a one-to-one digital learning program, which includes a suite of digital curriculum, and earned the district recognition as an Apple Distinguished Education Program. In addition, EUSD maintains an award-winning, comprehensive Health/Wellness Program that incorporates yoga and character education.

Originally published – Republished with permission.