Teachable Moment: Green Ribbon Schools

This year, for the first time, I served as a NJ reviewer for the U.S. Department of Education's Green Ribbon School Awards.  It was thrilling.  I never really understood the value of points and awards as incentives to engage folks and improve practice. I am a believer now. In this program, a Green School is defined as having three pillars of excellence:  Pillar ONE: Reduced Environmental Impact and Costs; Pillar TWO: Improved Health and Wellness, and Pillar THREE: Effective Environmental and Sustainability Education. The criteria for Pillars ONE and TWO are comprehensive, and here in NJ, we are working on Pillar THREE to make it as robust as the first two.  

The most interesting part of the process for me was the discourse between the reviewers about the subjectivity of the rubric. The rubric is a tool that guides the committee in reviewing the applications and is modified as the program evolves and grows. This year, we struggled with questions like, “What should we do if a school or district is trying hard and wants to reduce its energy use but has intervening circumstances, such as building a new building, finally getting air-conditioning, or dealing with particularly cold or hot weather the prior year? Could we give them points if they didn't actually reduce energy, even if we know for a fact that they are really, really trying? After much discussion, we had to conclude that evidence is evidence—no matter how hard you try.

It was a tough call. This is where the “different way of thinking” embedded in Education for Sustainability comes in.  If a district wants to reduce energy AND build new buildings AND get air-conditioning, they should be able to do just that.  But first, they need to change their mindset. 

Once they:

  • involve the children and young people
  • calculate the budget of energy, time, bio capacity and money that they have to work with
  • learn to tap the power of limits 
  • make small changes for the greatest effect
  • eliminate waste 
  • set a goal of 80% reduction in CO2 emissions and then track their progress toward that goal
  • think differently about how they are going to solve more than one problem at a time and minimize the creation of new problems 

Then they can have it all—albeit not necessarily all at the same time.

Change the mindset, change the world.

 

- Jaimie Cloud, Founder, The Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education

Jessie-Ruth Corkins: Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative

When thinking of the young people who continue to inspire EfS work, Jessie-Ruth Corkins comes to mind.

Jessie-Ruth is the core leader of the Vermont Sustainable Heating Initiative (VSHI), a group of students representing 200-plus youth from 26 high schools.  In 2004, Jessie-Ruth rose to a teacher’s challenge to create an energy conservation plan; her proposal to transition the school’s oil boiler to a woodchip boiler fueled by local products was adopted by the school board. After learning that Vermont does not have the forest capacity to heat the population with wood alone, VSHI wanted to facilitate the transition to heating with locally produced biomass energy crops.

Jessie-Ruth and VSHI wrote a persuasive statewide plan to develop Vermont’s 100,000 acres of underutilized land to grow prairie grass that could be pelletized and provide all of Vermont’s home heating needs. VHSI estimates the program’s financial returns could eventually reach up to $1.3 billion. However, Jessie-Ruth believes the returns will be greater than just money. “Locally produced energy will develop a greater sense of community in Vermont towns,” she said. “Our fuel will come from our own backyards and will offer a stable and affordable price to all Vermonters.” VSHI is currently running a pilot project in which it is transitioning low-income family homes in the community to pellet stoves.