Walk into a healthy, equitable, and sustainable school and you will immediately notice something “in the air,” a certain quality or feeling that you just can’t put your finger on. That certain something is the school’s culture and climate.

A school’s culture is deeply embedded in all aspects of its daily operations. It’s reflected in the school’s vision, mission, and core values and beliefs. It drives decision-making and influences the behavior and attitudes of everyone in the school building. A school’s climate is defined by the day-to-day practices that demonstrate the school’s commitment to its vision, mission, and core values and beliefs – the relationships among teachers, students, and staff; the food served in the cafeteria; the opportunities for exercise and free play; and the ability to connect with the natural world beyond the school building.

The five core practices that make up the Culture and Climate System in Green Schools National Network’s updated GreenPrint are key building blocks for a positive culture and climate in healthy, equitable, and sustainable schools. Core Practice 11 drives this point home with its focus on setting goals and measuring progress around culture and climate policies, practices, and initiatives. This article provides an overview of core practices 12 – 15 and shares examples of them in action in schools and districts across the country.

Healthy Relationships = Sustainability Mindsets

Healthy relationships among peers, adults, the local community, and the natural world form the bedrock of sustainability mindsets. That’s the essence of Core Practice 12. These relationships don’t happen in a vacuum. They require nurturing and reinforcement through developmentally appropriate lessons and experiences. Social-emotional learning plays an important role through curriculum, skill building, and modeling caring and trusting relationships. So does service learning, which engages students in projects in the schoolyard, the community, and local ecosystems that help them learn to care about and positively influence the world around them.

In Virginia Beach, Virginia, students at Seatack Elementary School are nurturing sustainability mindsets through daily experiences in the school’s gardens. The gardens, which include a certified wildlife habitat garden, a butterfly garden, an ocean-friendly garden, and a community vegetable garden, serve as living laboratories where students can explore science, math, and social studies concepts. All students play an active role in maintaining the gardens, from sowing seeds and nurturing plants to harvesting crops and composting waste. Engaging in this work imparts important life lessons too, including decision-making, problem-solving, and teamwork. It’s not uncommon for students to serve as garden docents, educating other schools and community members about Setack’s gardens.

A Healthy, Equitable, and Sustainable Food Culture

School meals are more than food on a plate. They are opportunities to promote good nutrition, support local food systems, celebrate diversity, and reduce food waste. Core Practice 13 addresses these and other key practices that contribute to a healthy, equitable, and sustainable food culture in schools. Locally sourced, organic foods are prioritized over highly processed packaged foods. Scratch-cooked meals are the norm and students are given voice and choice
when it comes to tasting-testing new foods and menu items. Composting and recycling are a given and a variety of measures are in place to track and reduce food waste.

Austin Independent School District (AISD) has made incredible strides in adopting a healthy, equitable, and sustainable food culture. As described in this Green Schools Catalyst Quarterly article, the district took its first steps toward building a districtwide sustainable food system in 2015 and since then has cultivated a robust and supportive food culture within the school community. At the heart of AISD’s efforts are innovative programs and strategies, including a Garden to Cafe program, food trucks, and student chef competitions, that bring healthy, nutritious, and sustainably sourced food to school cafes and engage students in learning about healthy eating and local food systems.

Move it! Exercise and Fitness Beyond PE Class

Physical activity is necessary for a healthy body and a healthy mind. We all need to move more, and that includes students. The best practices highlighted in Core Practice 14 show how healthy, equitable, and sustainable schools integrate opportunities for physical fitness throughout the school day, not just during PE class and recess. Bike trains and walking school buses are encouraged as a way to commute to and from school. Movement breaks during and between classes keep energy levels and brains ready to learn.

Unlike conventional schools, healthy, equitable, and sustainable schools include nature exploration, outdoor fitness, and outdoor adventure in their definition of physical education. After-school outdoor fitness activities and clubs are offered throughout the year. Partnerships with local and state parks and nature centers allow students (and adults) to participate in outdoor skills training. Multi-day hiking and camping trips are integrated in the curriculum at every grade level, giving students age-appropriate opportunities to immerse themselves in the natural world.

Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake, Illinois provides its students with a wide range of outdoor recreation pursuits during and after school. A highlight is the fifth- and sixth-grade camping trips that take place at Starved Rock State Park in Illinois and Warren Dunes State Park in Michigan. On these three-day trips, students learn and practice skills such as fire building, outdoor cooking, and tent set-up and care. They spend five to six hours each day hiking the parks’ various trails, learning about the land and wildlife and the natural and cultural history of the area. Many students make natural discoveries not possible in their schoolyard and all learn outdoor skills that could lead to lifelong hobbies and passions.

A Holistic Approach to Wellness

Stress, anxiety, and trauma can all interfere with a student’s physical, mental, and social-emotional health as well as their ability to learn. That’s why healthy, equitable, and sustainable schools prioritize wellness practices and programs for students AND staff. Core Practice 15 outlines some of these practices and programs, including daily wellness activities such as yoga and meditation and restorative justice practices that help students develop skills needed for resilience and self-regulation.
Mindfulness practices, yoga, and meditation are an important part of the school day at New Roots Charter School in Ithaca, New York. The school’s Take 30 mindfulness practice was adopted in fall 2015 and served as a springboard for development of a wellness course for ninth- and tenth-grade students that incorporates yoga and mindfulness practices with traditional physical education activities.

Fostering a positive school culture and climate that prioritizes the health and well-being of body, mind, and spirit is a schoolwide endeavor. Every member of the school community has a role to play in bringing that certain something “in the air” to life. You’ll know when they get it right. You can feel it as soon as you walk in the door.

Be a positive role model for culture and climate at your school.