Environmental damage happens on a global scale. While many of us hope to limit that damage with policy and technology, the kind of change our world really needs is a paradigm shift. Green schools around the globe recognize the value of education in transforming how communities think about and live in the world. Their method is to prepare youth for the real challenges that lie ahead, including a future impacted by the effects of climate change and resource scarcity. In the process, they aim to create empowered citizens and leaders prepared to make a meaningful and significant shift toward sustainable societies.
What Are Green Schools?
The phrase “green school,” tends to conjure images of swanky, LEED-certified buildings. It’s true that an important part of a green school is the campus itself. Green schools are built with recycled or sustainable materials, often sourced locally. They employ passive and renewable energy sources, water collection strategies and water-efficient landscapes, food gardens, composting programs, and much more. Their classrooms often look out at natural scenery, whether that’s a garden, a jungle, or the open sky.
But there’s more to a green school than just a sustainable package. Most incorporate a three pillar approach, such as the Whole-School Sustainability Framework. This framework recognizes that sustainability is a complex undertaking. It equally values sustainable architecture and the learning environment with the school’s organizational structure and the curriculum it teaches.
The Three Pillars of a Green School
Reduced Environmental Impact
- Sustainable or recycled building materials
- Passive energy sources (maximizing natural light and heating/cooling components)
- Renewable energy sources (solar, hydro-, or wind-power)
- Energy-use monitoring systems that help classrooms use energy more efficiently
- Biofuel or electric powered buses
- Water-efficient and habitat-promoting landscapes, food gardens, and living roofs
- Rainwater collection and/or water conservation systems
- Low-waste output (few or no single-use plastics, strong recycling and composting programs, and/or on-site natural sewage treatment)
Increased Health and Well-Being
- A supportive, sustainable, and integrated community of students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community partners
- Healthy lunch program made with locally grown (sometimes grown on site) ingredients
- Emphasis on activity and movement throughout the day
- Natural light and fresh air throughout the building
- Integration with the surrounding ecosystem via open air classrooms, large windows overlooking natural spaces, and/or lessons that take place outdoors
Increased Environmental and Sustainability Literacy for All Graduates
- Project-based curriculum with a focus on the environmental literacy and problem-solving
- Learning by doing: gaining real-world skills and experience through addressing sustainability issues at the school or in the surrounding community
- Student-led Eco Committees that guide the school’s practices and priorities
- Emphasis on interdisciplinary learning, communication skills, and teamwork
- Use of the multiplier effect, where engaged and empowered students share their expertise with family members, friends, and others outside the school community
Some of the World’s Most Innovative Green Schools
The Green School in Bali
Set in the jungle and built almost entirely out of bamboo, the Green School is so fully integrated into its surroundings that it seems more like an ornate arm of the jungle than something built on top of it. It has three rules: be local, let your environment be your guide, and envisage how your grandchildren will be affected by your actions.
At this off-grid campus, sawdust from a nearby bamboo farm is the fuel for cooking school lunches and students eat from reusable woven plates lined with a bamboo leaf. The school’s founders opened the Green School in order to create more and better leaders with experience and training in sustainability issues. They teach this by doing: students explore economics by raising chickens and selling the eggs, lobbying the Balinese government to ban plastic bags, or working with visiting Masters students from the University of Cologne to re-design the school’s renewable energy system.
Hong Kong Green Schools
A handful of schools in Hong Kong are bucking the conventional education model, hoping to start a new trend in a city that is plagued by pollution issues. By teaching the nuts and bolts of sustainability and creative problem-solving instead of rote memorization, the Independent Schools Foundation (ISF) Academy and the Chinese Foundation Secondary School (CFSS) follow the three-pillar approach to a green education. A comprehensive energy monitoring system at the ISF alerts classrooms when energy use exceeds what the building generates with renewable sources. It prompts students to seek out and eliminate the source of energy waste. The school also has a “rocket” composter that converts waste to soil in two weeks, a resource used to feed their organic rooftop garden. CFSS students also tend gardens, focusing on species diversity. They maintain a seedbank to preserve plants important to Chinese herbal medicine.
Uaso Nyiro Primary School in Kenya
Set in an arid region with limited above and below-ground water resources, the Uaso Nyiro Primary School focuses on water collection and conservation. Access to water limited student attendance because children had to help their families collect water from distant sources rather than go to school and bad water caused frequent illness. In response, the school created a building design that maximizes rainwater collection. The building captures up to 350,000 liters of water each year, stored in an underground cistern. It’s enough to supply the school and surrounding community with safe drinking water, and grow a food garden for the school kitchen. The students learn about clean water, health, and nutrition, information that they bring home and spread within the community. Other schools are building similar structures, increasing water availability throughout the region. Easy access to water frees up students’ time, and also allows their family more free time to engage in income-generating activities.
Any School Can Be a Green School
Eco-schools, a UNESCO recognized program, provides a framework for schools anywhere to incorporate green management, practices, and curriculum, regardless of financial resources. Centered around student-led Eco Committees, the Eco-School model puts students in the driver seat, making them the innovators and implementors of sustainability in their school. This experience best prepares them to become leaders in the sustainability movement.