Sustainable Schools

Updated September 19, 2016 |
Sustainable Schools
Sustainable schools have become a part of our 21st century educational fabric.

By now, after two decades into the 21st century, it is obvious even to the most jaded, cynical people out there that we have to rethink how we live and function on this planet which we call Earth. We are discovering that Earth's resources are finite. We are finally realizing that we must conserve energy. We are rethinking the cost of goods and services regarding their carbon footprint. Sustainability is no longer a theory. It is a concept which is being put into daily practice.

That's why it is very encouraging to see so many private schools making progress towards developing sustainable schools. For schools, sustainability involves not just the wise use of energy and foodstuffs, but it also the prudent management of a school's fiscal resources and more. The National Association of Independent Schools has published an excellent white paper entitled Sustainability: Creating 21st Century Sustainable Schools. Let's look at the five areas of sustainability which this document puts forth. The NAIS calls these 'dimensions' which is an apt description. 'Area' implies a confined space. 'Dimension' speaks to the vastness of the challenge and the scope of the solution.

Financial Sustainability

Simply put, financial sustainability is all about drawing a line and setting responsible limits. It doesn't matter whether you have $100,000 in the bank or $900 million in your savings account. Schools need to use all the expertise and tools available to them to control expenses and maximize the use of every dollar of income available to them. This is no easy task, but one which can be accomplished with creativity and thoughtfulness. This dimension, unfortunately, is not as easy to explain or 'sell' to students, as it is to the adult members of the school community and its alumni. My mother used to say that money doesn't grow on trees. Perhaps that's overly simplistic, but good stewardship of a school's financial resources ensures that the school and its good works will be there for generations to come. Teaching students to be frugal and not to spend money simply because they have it is a tough lesson. It is an even tougher lesson to teach when we adults provide examples of spending which contradict what we are telling our young people to do.

Environmental Sustainability

Even a small school generates enormous amounts of waste. Teaching everybody to recycle is a big step towards getting that waste output under control. Encouraging consistent compliance with recycling is another important step. Try doing it in stages. For example, using coffee mugs or water bottles instead of styrofoam cups and water in plastic bottles can become a habit. You can reinforce the damage which styrofoam cups and plastic water bottles do to your local environment by having your students do a trash pickup of a mile or so of roadside near your school. They will be amazed at the stuff people throw out their car windows. Drastically reducing the amount of material which has to be recycled or hauled off campus is the real challenge. That's why it's encouraging to see schools composting and using gray water for crop irrigation among other initiatives. Turning off lights and lowering thermostats whenever or wherever possible is another habit which all members of the school community can learn. 

Teaching students to respect nature and to live in harmony with nature is all part of a proactive, environmental sustainability initiative. Unlike financial sustainability which is tougher for most young people to understand, most students find nature endlessly fascinating. They will instinctively cringe at the thought of destroying nature's myriad creations. Showing young people how to care for and protect the environment is the way we develop responsible, environmentally-sensitive adults.

Global Sustainability

One of the realities of 21st-century living is that we are all connected.  Globalism is here to stay. Whether we live in Hong Kong or Hollywood, we have the electronic means to exchange ideas and promote understanding. Just as humankind has many faces and colors and customs and cultures, it also shares many common aspirations. Whether you live in Bryn Mawr or Beirut, you want your children to receive the best education which you can afford. You want to equip them with the skills needed to be constructive members of society. Once we truly understand that, despite superficial differences, we really want most of the same things for ourselves and our families, global understanding becomes a reality. Through networking and dialogue we can achieve a modicum of global sustainability. Understanding and tolerance are critical by-products of this dimensional exercise.

Programmatic Sustainability

One only has to look at how private schools have changed over the last 40 or 50 years to understand how this dimension works. The core subjects remain constant while the approaches to teaching them have changed markedly. Technology was not on anybody's radar back in the 60s. It sure is now. Now it is more important than ever to develop leadership skills in our young people. They need to learn how to take charge and lead their generation to places earlier generations could only dream about. Critical thinking skills have never been more important. You cannot develop those sorts of skills and attributes by having children parrot back a  series of facts and figures. Delving into those facts and figures and understanding the theories behind them are major challenges of programmatic sustainability.

Demographic Sustainability

In the 1950's and 1960's private school populations were fairly homogenous and fairly well off economically. Students of color and students from non-Christian backgrounds were relatively rare. If you attended on scholarship, it was because you were a faculty brat. That has all changed in most private schools. Diversity is the watchword in the 21st century. Schools proactively reach out to families who could not otherwise afford to send their academically capable children to private school. Generous benefactors are giving millions to their beloved alma maters to ensure that the requisite scholarship funds are on hand to pay for these children's educations. The ivory tower mentality has disappeared. Schools value the richness which diversity gives their communities.

The subsets of these NAIS sustainability dimensions could fill a book. Hopefully, this little essay will encourage you to champion sustainability in your home and at your school. Our future depends on it, doesn't it?

Questions? Contact me via Twitter. @privateschl


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