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When talking about teaching environmental and sustainability literacy in schools, we mostly mean educating students to be environmentally responsible. But there is a bigger, deeper meaning here. In order for our future generations to be fluent in environmental and sustainability literacy, the skills they’ll need must be embedded into their school culture from the ground up. Starting from early learners, through every grade level. The students of today who will become the workforce of tomorrow really do need these inherent skills if they are to thrive and ideally contribute to their community and the well-being of the planet. Environmental and sustainability literacy cannot be tacked on with extra-curricular activities or summer camps; it must be embedded throughout day to day practises, within every classroom, and every subject.

A quote from Green Notes describes this deeper purpose well:

“Environmental and sustainability literacy is needed to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to create the future we want – one with economic opportunity for all, a fair and just society, thriving ecosystems, and healthy human and more than human populations.” – GreenNotes.

We are talking about creating a strong culture of environmental responsibility through a systematic approach that exists throughout an organization and goes beyond just ‘green’. Creating such a culture involves other focuses besides environmental education; it’s about social and community care as well. 

Social and community care means:

  • Consistently caring for each others health and well-being.
  • Building the expectation within every age group of kindness, respect and self expression. 
  • Children feeling safe and heard to be able to express their views and ask questions.
  • Creating a space for children and their needs; a student focused environment – where they feel welcomed, and have a sense of ownership and belonging.

Truly sustainable schools are more than about green practices, they are about creating an environment where teachers and faculty can cultivate a positive and progressive school culture. Where teachers have more opportunities to devise unique learning opportunities and students benefit through increased participation, productivity and improved problem-solving and critical thinking skills. 

An organization who has seen growth and success in various sustainability initiatives through a focused and systematic approach is Oak Park Unified School District (OPUSD). A K-12 school district located in south Ventura County, California. Environmental education is not just happening in the science classrooms of Oak Park. It is embedded in the curriculum, across content areas and supported at the district administration level by supporting students and teachers in the work. One of the most transformational OPUSD green initiatives has been around food – where they have successfully integrated social and community care with environmental responsibility and education.

The initiative stemmed from the district being committed to providing every student with a quality, healthy meal, while also having a positive environmental impact. Their progressive policies include improving waste management, increasing water conservation and energy efficiency, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. OPUSD have reduced their landfill contribution by implementing waste sorting stations for compost, recycling, and landfill, with school meals only served in recycled and recyclable packaging. The food itself follows ethical procurement practices: only sourcing organic and pesticide-free produce via environmental management practices that protect the soil, air, and water. They purchase at least 25% of produce from within California; and preferably within a 250-mile radius of Ventura County and ideally from small family farms under 500 acres. They also make every effort to purchase produce from animals raised with adequate living space, fed a healthy diet, and slaughtered humanely. OPUSD’s own school gardens are being expanded to provide organic and pesticide-free produce for use in the School Meals Program.

Another organization doing great work in this area are Odyssey Charter schools in Altadena, California. Their deep rooted commitment to ensuring the programs, facilities, and practices are grounded in sustainability and ecological literacy starts with their ‘classroom without walls’ learning philosophy. This practice develops student’s academic skills learnt alongside real life exploration, investigation, reflection, and collaboration with other students, teachers, parents and the wider community. Odysseys’ three interdependent student-focused learning domains— academic excellence, social emotional wellbeing, and social responsibility – work in unison to establish inclusive learning environments for all students. It is through their unique school model with a strong focus on social responsibility that allows their students to develop and deepen their sustainability and ecological literacy skills.

In essence sustainable schools are the teaching tool that brings together environmental education and community engagement. These collaborative activities inspire all members of the school community, which in turn creates a culture of continuous learning, growth, and development, and that creates better, longer term, more successful learning outcomes for its students.