New Jersey: An Unexpected Leader Emerges in Sustainability Education

As the new administration in Washington questions the role of the federal government in protecting the environment, there is a growing sense of urgency for all parts of society to step up to the plate, and they are. Earlier this year, over 600 major businesses and investors signed a letter urging then President-elect Trump and Congress to fight climate change.  American cities have taken the lead in implementing creative solutions to local environmental challenges. Inspired by religious teachings, more and more faith institutions are addressing sustainability in their congregations and buildings.  Coalitions of NGO’s, businesses and academic stakeholders have formed to take on global challenges like deforestation and water quality and availability.  

As Einstein said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved with the same thinking we used to create them.” We need new ways of thinking, not just to solve today’s problems, but to lead us to a healthy and regenerative future. Now imagine that schools could prepare young people to think about the world in this entirely new way.  Here’s the good news—it’s happening. Right now, all over the state of New Jersey.

Sustainable Jersey for Schools is a certification program for NJ public schools that provides tools, training and financial incentives to support and reward schools as they pursue sustainability programs. Launched in 2014, this non-profit organization has over 580 schools participating from 236 districts in all 21 NJ counties. Sustainable Jersey for Schools takes a holistic view of sustainability, encompassing responsible use of natural resources, prosperous local economies, and strong civil societies with opportunities for all people.  Education for sustainability in curriculum, instruction and assessment and green buildings and operations are integral parts of the program. Participating schools can choose from 87 actions to earn points for certification, by performing energy audits, adopting a green purchasing policy, providing evidence of EfS in lessons and student work and more. The Cloud Institute is among the comprehensive coalition of partners who helped develop and vet these actions.  

The Student Learning section of the program combines Education for Sustainability (EfS) Enduring Understandings with Eco-Schools USA Pathways as a framework to help schools integrate sustainability into student learning. EfS prepares students for their roles in creating a sustainable future by engaging them in solutions based design and action that integrates knowledge across disciplines and considers diverse social, economic and cultural perspectives. EfS is much more than teaching content related knowledge and skills, it’s also about teaching new ways of thinking about and perceiving the realities of our world and the possibilities for change. Sustainable Jersey’s EfS actions span grade levels and disciplines and award points for lessons that characterize the knowledge, skills and dispositions of education for sustainability,  employ effective instructional methods to engage students and assess student learning for evidence of core sustainability principles.

Sustainable Jersey for Schools also supports the adoption of policies and practices that help schools build capacity to integrate EfS into the curriculum and school culture.  In the Board Leadership and Planning section of the program, schools are encouraged to embed sustainability into strategic planning, professional development and school policies.  Points are awarded in the Learning Environment section for schools that use curriculum mapping to ensure the curriculum scope and sequence is aligned vertically and horizontally across grade levels and disciplines.  A curriculum map serves as a great asset for any school seeking to infuse sustainability into its curriculum.  

As part of the Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification process, dozens of schools have embraced and received points for EfS.  Once a school is certified, documentation related to each approved action is made available to the public on the Sustainable Jersey for Schools website.  The search feature allows anyone to view and be inspired by the examples from these NJ schools.

Reeds Road Elementary School in Galloway Township recently became certified at the Silver level and was awarded the maximum number of points available for EfS actions across grade levels and academic disciplines.  The school’s sixth grade math classes participated in a lesson, “The Real Cost of a Water Bottle”.  As a coastal community school, the idea of plastics polluting the ocean held special interest to the students.  They did research in small groups and tallied the number of water bottles they used over time. After coming up with possible solutions to the water bottle problem, the students decided to use more re-usable bottles, recycle more consistently and to explore the purchase of a bottle refilling station for the school. More information and samples of student work from these lessons can be found on the school’s certification report and on the slides below.

 Slide courtesy of Sustainable Jersey

Slide courtesy of Sustainable Jersey

 Slide courtesy of Sustainable Jersey

Slide courtesy of Sustainable Jersey

Another Silver certified school, Egg Harbor Township High School in Atlantic County achieved a significant number of points in the Student Learning category.  As part of a unit on water quality and preservation, English students imagined they lived in a fictional town called “Turtlesville”.  Taking on the persona of a variety of community stakeholders, they were asked to form an opinion related to a potential waste to energy facility coming to town.  The students prepared materials and participated in a debate about the issue. More information and samples of student work from these lessons can be found on the school’s certification report and on the slide below.

 Slide courtesy of Sustainable Jersey

Slide courtesy of Sustainable Jersey

At a time when many express grave concern for the future of the planet,  it’s reassuring that the densest state in the country is stepping up to the plate.  As New Jersey students learn to think about the world in new ways, they will begin to solve the problems of today and ultimately, lead us to a healthy, regenerative future.  

The Cloud Institute works with schools and districts seeking Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification around the curriculum, instruction and assessment aspects of EfS, as well as the policies and practices related to organizational learning and leadership.  Learn more here.