When Prairie Crossing Charter School (PCCS) in Grayslake, Illinois was founded in 1999, Victoria Post Ranney imagined a school where kids would spend as much time outside on the school grounds as they would spend in classrooms reading, listening, and taking tests. She imagined a school campus with buildings that were teachers themselves, structures built to demonstrate low-energy use and healthy indoor environments with classrooms designed for collaboration, innovation, and movement.
A few years later, PCCS realized that making the vision a reality would require help from outside experts steeped in experience in creating roots-to-roof, curriculum-to-culture, green schools. They hired Naomi Hershiser, who has served as the school’s dynamic and dedicated Dean of Environmental Learning for eighteen years. When Executive Director Geoff Deigan joined the team in 2013, his charge focused on Creating Natural Leaders by keeping the environment at the center of everything PCCS does, from everyday operational decisions to teaching and learning. To realize that vision, he partnered with Green Schools National Network (GSNN), which has collaborated with PCCS to provide professional development and opportunities to reflect on, learn from, improve, and even teach other schools how to implement sustainable school practices. “We’ve tried to learn from every mistake over the years,” says Hershiser. “The biggest lesson is that we couldn’t do it alone and often our biggest contribution was simply to be the humble support to someone else’s efforts. Caring for a school, like caring for the planet, is work we do together over time. It’s a shared responsibility.”
Follow the GreenPrint . . . A Guide by Your Side
For PCCS and more than 300 other schools affiliated with GSNN, caring for the school and the planet begins with the GreenPrint, a framework for creating a school or a district that is healthy, equitable, and sustainable. As a nationwide network of educators, district leaders, and eco-professionals, GSNN has gathered best practices from across the field into a “road map” that articulates the vision and the steps needed to achieve it. As a tool for strategic planning and a checklist for diagnosing existing strengths and areas for improvement, the GreenPrint drives purposeful and productive innovation that comprehensively addresses the components of a healthy, equitable, and sustainable school.
Grounded in Values
GSNN is committed to sustainability and sustainable change. As such, the GreenPrint and its practices are grounded in three core beliefs:
- Systemic change endures. GSNN believes healthy, equitable, and sustainable schools can only be achieved through whole-district/whole-school transformation that engages four interdependent systems that define a school: Leadership, Curriculum and Instruction, Culture and Climate, and Facilities and Operations.
- Equity matters. GSNN believes students from all backgrounds and zip codes and regardless of social identities, including gender, sexual orientation, ability, race/ethnicity, and religion/spiritual beliefs, should have an equitable opportunity for academic success and equitable access to healthy environments.
- Everyone is a leader and a learner. While leadership is key to creating healthy, equitable, and sustainable schools, every member of the school community – staff, students, parents, and community members – has a voice and a hand in creating systems and opportunities that increase engagement, deepen learning, and build the confidence and competence needed to become agents of change for a just and sustainable future.
These beliefs serve as compass points for those who use the GreenPrint, guiding decision-making and actions taken by school and district leaders, educators, staff, students, parents, and members of the community at large.
Designed for Influence and Impact
Like living organisms, schools are complex systems. How we teach and learn, how we build schools, how we establish a positive learning environment for all students—all of these actions must respond and adapt to changing conditions, with the goal of creating systems that will thrive today and in the future as communities continue to grapple with the challenges of climate change, racial and economic injustice, and environmental health. Implementing healthy, equitable, and sustainable practices requires intention, sustained attention, and continual progress-checking to stay on course. That’s why the GreenPrint is designed to address three separate but related spheres of influence: health, equity, and sustainability. By staying focused on these spheres and how they overlap, school leaders take concrete, meaningful steps without losing sight of the goal.
Within these spheres of influence are four impact systems that power the levers of change. In any school or district, these systems—Leadership, Curriculum and Instruction, Culture and Climate, and Facilities and Operations—comprise all the people, places, policies, and practices that impact members of the school community. The GreenPrint addresses each of these systems, providing guidance to leaders and others about how to shape the system for greater health, equity, and sustainability.
As a school committed to sustainability and the environment, PCCS established a leadership team that reflects the importance of these values, with an Executive Director (Deigan) who has an extensive environmental background, a dedicated Dean of Environmental Learning (Hershiser), and a Dean of Faculty and Students (Tony Zamier). The school leveraged the facilities and operations system to build and maintain the first LEED Gold-certified school building in Illinois, which lowers the school’s footprint and serves as a learning laboratory for students.
To ensure the curriculum was rigorous, integrated, and steeped in sustainability concepts, faculty worked collaboratively to formulate and document learning targets for each grade level that are based on ten applied knowledge and content standards identified in Education for a Sustainable Future: Benchmarks for Individual and Social Learning.
Finally, PCCS faculty and staff worked together to identify habits of work and learning that would shape the school’s Natural Leaders program, their model for social-emotional learning. Their new tagline, Natural Leader CARES, incorporates the acronym for the habits of work and learning that PCCS adopted: Collaborate, Aware, Respect, Empower, and Sustainable. By attending to all five practices and using the GreenPrint as a compass, PCCS has progressed steadily toward its goals and vision.
Would you begin a long and arduous journey through the wilderness without a compass or a map? Probably not. For those of you looking to begin your journey to becoming a green school, give yourself some piece of mind and navigate the road ahead with the GreenPrint in hand.
Stay tuned for future posts, which will explore each of the GreenPrint’s four systems in more detail.