By. Jenna Cramer, LEED AP, Vice President of Transformation and Community, Green Building Alliance


“What is desperately needed [in education] are (1) faculty and administrators who provide role models of integrity, care, and thoughtfulness, and (2) institutions capable of embodying ideals wholly and completely in all of their operations.”  –David Orr, What is Education For?


We like to say that every school has had a failed recycling program or something akin to it. What starts out as being a great effort with lots of energy and excitement can often fade over time. Funding runs out, staff turns over, project champions become burnt out, and people return to their old habits. The hope is always that these initiatives will catch on and attract widespread interest and support, but it doesn’t always seem to stick. Why does this happen???


In our experience, it is because the goals of the proverbial recycling program are at odds with the values of the school’s culture. Despite being a good idea, the recycling program is perceived as being an add-on, and is not considered important or worthy of people’s time. On a rational level, people know they should recycle, turn the lights out, eat healthy food, and so forth.  But when behavior slips back into the familiar, this is indicative that their heart is not in it and they do not truly care about it.


In response to this phenomenon, we sought to answer the question: “How does one foster a culture of sustainability in schools?” In 2012, the Green Building Alliance, a Pittsburgh-based non-profit and regional chapter of the U.S .Green Building Council, created the Green Schools Academy (now named the Green & Healthy Schools Academy (GHSA)) and launched the School Sustainability Culture Program, a unique and innovative approach to working with schools to embed sustainability into their culture, facilities, and curriculum. We wanted to cultivate the kind of motivation, will, and passion that becomes endemic and truly starts to change hearts and minds, and shift culture over time to allow schools to explore their values and definition of success.


Here is our formula for creating the conditions through which schools can explore culture in relation to their values, mindsets, and aspirations, and articulate their own vision and definition of success.


Photo | Green Building Alliance

Photo | Green Building Alliance


Offer a compelling and unifying vision

We focus our collective lens on what we think the purpose of a green school really is: to foster thriving students, schools, and communities, so as to cultivate leaders and citizens that are prepared to tackle the challenges of the 21st century.


Create a safe space for a learning community to emerge

We bring together a cohort of six to eight schools and districts of all types (public, public charter, parochial, and independent), each made up of stakeholders from different roles within the school and community. Over the course of the two-year program, these teams develop a deep level of trust and sense of connectedness, which gives the participants the confidence to speak their minds, take risks, and be a little vulnerable. Participants also need a space where they can come to extricate themselves from the day-to-day reality of deadlines, planning, budgets, and the like, and allow themselves to think on a different level.


Bring brilliant minds and inspiring ideas to dare people to dream big

It is very easy for any organization to become insular in its knowledge and approaches. If we hope to encourage people to think differently, we need them to see what is possible. There are amazing people around the country and the world that are daring to think, act, and work differently. We bring some of them to Pittsburgh as part of the Green Building Alliance’s Inspire Speakers Series, to inspire our region’s communities and schools to dream big and do something great. The next day, speakers spend time with our learning community of educators to share and have a dialogue about how their ideas apply to education.


Incorporate values of sustainability

Our beliefs and values form our mindsets and drive our organizational structures and behaviors. It is easy to lose sight of one’s values in the chaos of daily life, so we provide room to discuss and explore these values. We also embed a number of our core values and themes into our workshops, including: empathy, love, beauty, systems thinking, collaboration, equity, health and well-being, connectedness, and purpose.


Arrange explorations to be individualized and open-ended

One of the core tenets of our program is to enable schools to identify and connect with what is important to them. While we do utilize certain frameworks, such as the petals of the Living Building Challenge, we avoid creating checklists and prescriptive approaches since sustainability is a “one size fits no one” framework.  We steer away from delivering content, and instead pose overarching questions to elicit participants’ underlying beliefs and passions, such as:

  • What is your door to sustainability?
  • What is your vision for your school 10 years from today?


Create opportunities for people to step out of their comfort zone

Real change occurs when we are emotionally uncomfortable. Exposing our closely-held beliefs and biases, even to ourselves, is an emotionally difficult experience. It is only in this space where we can truly challenge our own beliefs and mindsets, and reconstruct our worldview to incorporate what we previously avoided or disregarded.


Leave the strategies and tactics out of the conversation

Step back from the practices and approaches we typically think of as making up a green school. Think more on the systems level about what conditions we want to create that will make the strategies and tactics more integrated, valued, and meaningful.


Allow for participatory, project-based, and experiential learning

Just like students, adults learn better when they are given the opportunity to learn by doing, instead of learning by listening. In addition to short exercises, including outdoor and mindfulness activities, we also require schools to complete actual projects in their schools to put into practice some of the big ideas that are discussed in the workshops.


Don’t shy away from emotions

Emotion is perhaps the most powerful force that we tap. Often shunned as being unprofessional and soft, we proudly describe our program as an emotional and spiritual experience. We hope this appreciation for emotion trickles down to schools, so that we can recognize students as being emotional creatures that should be treated with empathy and love.


The true measure of whether the School Sustainability Culture Program has been successful is if schools have the initiative and the confidence to pursue green schools programs and strategies on their own, driven by the values and beliefs they now hold dear. The impact the program has had on our participating schools has been profound in ways we could not dream of, including:

  • Development of a student-centered sustainability master plan;
  • Rethinking the school curriculum to embrace the whole child;
  • Transforming the school lunch program; and
  • Pursuing high standards of performance and health in capital projects, including the Living Building Challenge.

Case Study: The Environmental Charter School at Frick Park

On the surface, you would expect that an environmentally-themed charter school would already be doing everything we have outlined here. For example, The Environmental Charter School (ECS) at Frick Park had implemented many of the strategies and practices that make up a green school: composting, gardens, outdoor learning, among others. But like many schools, not everyone in the school embraced sustainability. The School Sustainability Culture Program provided the committed and passionate ECS leadership the space to reflect, examine, and try new ideas. The leadership team moved from being a fast-paced, task-oriented group to one that was inclusive, thoughtful, and purpose-driven. According to Nikole Sheaffer, ECS’s Director of Innovation, “we went from checking boxes for a green ribbon to changing hearts and minds for a new way of seeing our environment.”


One of the most visible changes to the school is the shift of culture around food and school lunch. With the support and courage of a broad group of stakeholders, ECS moved from a noisy and unpleasant cafeteria environment focused on delivering calories on a plate, to one that is peaceful, respectful, and a valued opportunity for learning. ECS renovated their old auditorium to become the new cafeteria, which was designed to reflect the school’s values and ideals, and serve as the heart of the school. The food service staff intentionally engaged the entire school community in changing the culture around food, not just what appears on the plate. Students take turns planning, preparing, and serving meals. Students and staff are encouraged in fun ways to try new foods. Classroom lessons integrate and bolster the lessons taking place in the cafeteria. Fresh fruit is available all day. Healthy, nourishing meals are planned collaboratively in partnership with a food service company that trains and employs ex-offenders and hard-to-employ individuals. This is just one example of the great transformation that has taken place at ECS.

Experience all of this at the Green Schools Conference and Expo in Pittsburgh!

GHSA, the School Sustainability Culture Program, and ECS will be at the Green Schools Conference and Expo:

  • GHSA will be hosting a condensed, one-day version of the School Sustainability Culture Program as a pre-conference workshop on March 30th. Come experience this unique program, and see if it is a good fit for your school. We will be holding a week-long, executive education version of the program, slated for Summer 2017.
  • ECS is also hosting a pre-conference workshop to offer attendees a chance to experience ECS’s pedagogy, food culture, and the gorgeous backdrop of Frick Park.
  • ECS and GHSA are partnering on a breakout session during the conference on culture, inspiration, and values.


About Jenna Cramer


Jenna leads the Green Building Alliance’s efforts to sustainably transform projects, buildings, schools, and communities throughout the 26-county Western Pennsylvania region.  She created and implements the Green & Healthy Schools Academy for preK-12 stakeholders, which includes the integration of sustainability leadership and educational programs into area schools and districts.  Jenna holds B.A. degrees in environmental studies and public policy analysis from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.