The well-being of the Chesapeake Bay watershed will soon rest in the hands of its youngest residents. For many, efforts to instill in students a connection to the natural world—and in turn, a desire to care for it—begin with greening the buildings in which students learn. Whether by installing rain gardens and water bottle filling stations like Lanier Middle School in Fairfax, Virginia; turning an unused open-air space to a light-filled atrium like Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C.; or installing a geothermal heat pump and two thousand solar panels like Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia, Maryland, schools across the region have made big strides toward sustainability.
Sustainable schools are built around reducing environmental impact, improving human health and strengthening environmental literacy. Because certification programs often require progress in each of these three pillars of sustainability, the benefits of sustainable schools are varied, from the conservation of water and energy to the improved test scores that have been linked to hands-on environmental education.
But building a sustainable school can take time and dedication on the part of principals, teachers and facilities staff. While the benefits of sustainable schools are proven—and outweigh costs 20 to 1—resources aren’t always distributed evenly and buy-in is not always easy to get.
“If a school administration does not understand the benefits of a sustainable school program and does not support teachers or other school staff investing time towards school sustainability, then it’s going to be difficult for any school to achieve it,” said Kevin Schabow, coordinator of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Education Workgroup, which advances the partnership’s environmental literacy goals. “There are many priorities for administrators, and school sustainability may not be on their radar.”
That said, making a school sustainable can begin with grassroots enthusiasm. “Student voice is a powerful thing,” Schabow said. Whether the driver is a desire to compete with other schools or the knowledge that sustainable schools are good for staff and students alike, motivation can come in the form of a superintendent who encourages principals to go green, a teacher who excites students about stewardship or a group of students who lobby their principal for a change.
In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, a total of 502 public and charter schools—or 12 percent of all public and charter schools—are certified sustainable by one of the following programs: U.S. Green Ribbon Schools, Eco-Schools USA, Maryland Green Schools and Virginia Naturally Schools. Maryland is home to most of the sustainable schools in the region, in large part because their robust in-state program was established almost 20 years ago. Indeed, state-specific programs are not equal: in some states, these programs are robust; in others, these programs are not well-established; and in others, these programs do not yet exist. The Chesapeake Bay Program will continue to monitor sustainable schools in the region and provide support through funding and other means.
Schabow notes that the partnership’s sustainable school goal—which was adopted in the 2014 Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement and aims to continually increase the number of sustainable schools in the region—has increased awareness around the sustainable school initiative. “I’m hopeful that we can continue supporting state projects and see increased interest and participation in these programs,” Schabow said. “That’s really what we’re looking for. We’ve got the baseline [counted], but we want to see more.”
Learn more about our work to increase sustainable schools in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.