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Public Purpose: Environmentalism in Independent Schools--and Others!

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I'm not a knowledgeable environmentalist--certainly no expert--but, like many of us, I do what I can to live a greener life. I'm also a big fan of getting kids outdoors as part of their education. All of this sparks my interest in what schools can do and are doing to facilitate these goals.

In 2005 I attended a conference at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey with a focus on environmental sustainability in all aspects of schools' lives and programs. Part of the program was a focus on the then-pretty-new Island School, one of the term-away programs of which I wrote earlier and the brainchild of some Lawrenceville folks.

I met some very smart and interesting people at this event, and I heard some compelling presentations. But the biggest thing that I took away was that a couple of the independent schools in attendance had appointed what amounted to Chief Sustainability Officers.

One of these people, Josh Hahn of Lawrenceville, reviewed his portfolio: reducing energy and resource use, sourcing Green and local products and materials,being an administration-level voice in policy and planning discussions, and supporting (and providing some of) his school's educational efforts around environmental sustainability. Pretty cool stuff!

We know I'm a cockeyed idealist, so it might not surprise you that this idea seemed like the greatest thing since sliced bread. These couple of schools had elevated the environmental voice--often heard here and there in schools in what can feel like nagging tones--from gadfly to guru. They had put real authority in the hands of someone who could continue expanding expertise in an evolving field even as he or she helped the school with operational and strategic issues at the cabinet level.

At my school at this time we were still struggling with simple recycling (town regulations seemed to be at issue), and our environmental initiatives came largely from a few very enthusiastic teachers and an outdoorsman CFO. Clearly the Chief Sustainability Officer concept was not going to work for every school--not, then, for ours--for a whole lot of reasons.

But some quick math suggested to me that on a large, multi-building residential campus--like Lawrenceville's--such a position could soon pay for itself. It was in fact among such schools that the Green Cup Challenge came to be. The challenge had been born as an inter-dormitory competition at Phillips Exeter Academy (a.k.a. just plain Exeter) "as a campus-wide energy conservation competition designed to raise awareness about energy consumption" and went interscholastic--we independent schools do like rivalries--in 2005-06, with something over a half-dozen schools competing. Last year over 300 schools from all sectors participated, saving, according to reports some 1.5 gigawatt-hours of electricity.

It turns out, of course, that not just big boarding schools need to save energy and focus on environmental sustainability. In 2007, responding to a challenge put forth by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, a group of schools came together to form the Green Schools Alliance, which now has about 3000 member schools worldwide, private and public; the Alliance now sponsors the Green Cup Challenge, now expanded to include several different kinds of competitions.

A number of big boarding schools do bring great resources as well as economies of scale to the work of environmental sustainability. Berkshire School in Massachusetts has built an enormous solar array--largest in the state--and Connecticut's Hotchkiss School (where Josh Hahn is now the Assistant Head of School and Director of Environmental Initiatives) has committed itself "to becoming a carbon-neutral campus by 2020."

In June of this year a group of environmentally concerned educators gathered on the Hotchkiss campus for the National Association of Independent Schools-The Hotchkiss School Summit on Environmental Sustainability in Independent Schools. It was eight years on from the conference I attended at Lawrenceville, and this event gave evidence that the sophistication with which schools are looking at the challenges and opportunities of environmental sustainability has grown as much as the number of independent schools that are getting serious about the issue.

I've referred here on several occasions to the old(ish) chestnut about "private schools with a public purpose." It strikes me that environmental sustainability has become an area in which independent schools are pushing this envelope, from Berkshire's mighty array to Hotchkiss's vast biomass facility to smaller examples like Darrow School's "Living Machine" water treatment facility and leadership in Hudson River Valley environmental education to the place-driven schoolyard-to-table program at the tiny North Country School in New York's Adirondack Mountains. All of these model a path toward environmental awareness and sustainable practice that ought to be having a powerful influence on public policy, from education and energy to zoning laws.

It may be that independent schools are just beginning to find their real voice for expressing their public purpose--the real work, as partners and working exemplars, of turning their resources and their ideas to aims beyond the education of their own students. I'd like to believe that the best of schools' environmental work, as it has spread through the Green Schools Alliance and through the examples and outreach of schools like Darrow and others, may just be the sound of public purpose clearing its throat.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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