It takes more than just a few recycling bins here and there to truly make a school district environmentally sustainable.
That’s the message from members of Newton’s School Sustainability Working Group — a cohort of students, parents, teachers, administrators and others who since the group’s foundation in June have been advocating for more comprehensive measures to reduce Newton Public Schools’ impact on the environment.
“These are important steps that must be taken to tackle the climate crisis here in Newton and set an example for other school systems in the state and country,” Coral Lin, a junior at Newton North High School, said at a school committee meeting on Jan. 13. “My generation is increasingly anxious about the world’s future, but many feel paralyzed into inaction … This problem could be solved if students were educated not only on the causes and effects of climate change, but how we can work together to find and implement solutions.”
Each of the working group’s initiatives for promoting sustainable practices within the school district falls under one of four broader focus areas: recycling and waste diversion, food services, energy, and transportation. Group members work closely with the nonprofit Green Newton, as well as other stakeholders like the city’s Department of Public Works and the district’s food service management company, to coordinate and realize their objectives.
In its first nine months, the group held monthly meetings, launched a webpage through NPS to communicate its goals and ideas to the community, and pushed for the city to apply for a School Recycling Assistance Grant through the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, according to a report on the district’s sustainability efforts presented at the Jan. 13 school committee meeting.
But perhaps the group’s most significant achievement was to have sustainability included as one of the key steps toward achieving the district’s systemwide goals for 2019-2020, as part of a plan to improve school facilities.
“We want sustainability efforts to be institutionalized in the schools. It has to be something that the schools and the district champion,” said Joana Canedo, chairwoman of Green Newton School Connections, a forum for members of the NPS community to discuss sustainability needs and goals, which works in collaboration with the working group.
There are two critical steps the district can still take to further its commitment to addressing climate change, advocates say, and both of them would empower students to take the lead in the effort to mitigate the effects of the ongoing climate crisis.
The first step would be for the district to formally include climate education as part of its curriculum for all students. In January, students launched an online petition to try to do just that.
“We don’t have the standardized, encompassing curriculum necessary for such an important topic,” says the petition, which had garnered more than 1,000 signatures by mid-March. “Some students grow up knowing about our deteriorating environment, others do not. Some teachers focus heavily on ecology and biodiversity, or the environmental movement and sustainability laws, others do not. Our schools should have a standard curriculum, bridging learning gaps to help all students reach the same level of knowledge.”
Bolstering the district’s curricula at all grade levels by encouraging and even requiring a greater emphasis on environmental literacy would help provide the impetus the fight against climate change requires right now, Canedo said.
“If climate education becomes a goal or a priority, the agenda can be pushed further in many ways,” she said. “We invite [student] engagement because we think they are what’s moving the world forward. We want not only to hear what they have to say, but also to help them do some of the things they might not know how to do — to navigate the system.”
Other smaller moves district administrators could make to facilitate a transition to a “greener” future could include allocating more of its budget toward sustainability initiatives, offering professional development focused on climate education, or simply stating that sustainability is a priority for the district, which it has begun to do through the establishment of the working group and by including sustainability as part of its systemwide goals, Canedo said.
But in order for meaningful change to take place, the district must develop a more effective and permanent system for planning and carrying out sustainability initiatives, Canedo said.
The second critical step the district needs to take, advocates say, is to hire a full-time sustainability coordinator who would work with students, educators and administrators at each Newton school to help them organize and execute their ideas for making their schools more sustainable.
“We have to stop thinking of climate as a movement, or a group or a working group. We have to have a climate revolution,” Underwood Elementary School educator Andy Gluck said at the Jan. 13 school committee meeting. “I think most of us are here to ask you, as a school committee with 12,000 students and the impact that you can make, to number one, hire a sustainability coordinator for the district — full time, nonstop — and be sure that coordinator has a green team captain at each school that can do the work that has to get done.”
Green teams are groups of students and teachers who work together to brainstorm and implement ways to make the schools more sustainable. As of mid-March, 11 of Newton’s 21 public schools had an active green team, and eight of them are registered with MassDEP for this school year, according to Green Newton School Connections records. That registration is an important distinction that provides green team members with more supplies and more opportunities for environmental education than they would otherwise receive.
While Newton schools have closed until at least April 6 due to concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus, sustainability advocates are continuing the work toward improvements throughout the district. Green Newton School Connections is continuing its monthly meetings online, and its workgroups have been working via email, Canedo said.
Other members of the community have also been encouraged to participate in the process remotely, with GNSC distributing to teachers an online survey about climate education and offering both students and teachers additional resources, like online climate education webinars and courses, and even some inspiration, like sustainability success stories from other school districts around the country.
So, despite the temporary closure, the push for a more sustainable Newton continues, and regardless of the ongoing pandemic, Canedo said, that transition is going to be led by students and teachers.
“In order for things to work, everybody needs to be involved and active and make the changes that are needed,” she said. “We cannot just pass a resolution and say Newton is going to accomplish this by whatever date if we don’t establish a foundation, and the foundation is the schools.”
Andres Picon can be reached at email@example.com.