A Deeper Shade of Green: A District Sustainability Plan Encompasses Facilities, Operations, and Instruction

Note: The U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools program recognizes schools, districts and postsecondary institutions that are 1) reducing environmental impact and costs; 2) improving health and wellness; and 3) teaching environmental education. To share innovative practices in these three ‘Pillars,’ the Department conducts an annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour of honorees.

Making the decision to “go green” is an important step toward building 21st-century school systems in this country. And, as our decades-long experience in Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) shows, it takes commitment, collaboration, culture change, and comprehensive planning to turn a deeper shade of green.

School Energy and Recycling Teams (SERTs) are comprised of students, teachers, and administrators at each school. (Photo credit: Montgomery County Public Schools)

School Energy and Recycling Teams (SERTs) are comprised of students, teachers, and administrators at each school. (Photo credit: Montgomery County Public Schools)

MCPS’ commitment to good environmental stewardship spans more than 35 years. We began laying the foundation for sustainability in the 1980s and 1990s through dedicated energy and utilities management, including automation of building systems, lighting retrofits, and energy efficient design in new constructions. Today, we have a district-wide sustainability plan championed by the superintendent of schools and it’s implemented at every level of our system.

We’re working hard. We’re getting results. And, we’re getting noticed.

We’re proud that MCPS has received the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools District Sustainability Award and four school awards since 2012. These honors are the result of tremendous collaboration among many offices and departments, including Facilities, Materials Management, Transportation, Information Management, and the Office of Curriculum and Instruction.

We’re integrating operations with instruction in several ways:

  • Building and grounds provide a safe and healthy environment for students;
  • Resource-efficient and renewable energy technologies offer authentic learning; and
  • Conservation practices help the school system save money on operations.

Our district-wide focus on sustainability creates opportunities to involve students in conservation practices as they learn the why and how of those practices.

We have found that a key to the cultural change required for a sustainable school district is getting buy-in from the school community: convincing the staff and students at every school that conservation pays off – quite literally.

A major step forward in this effort was the formation of School Energy and Recycling Teams (SERTs), which are comprised of students, teachers, and administrators at each school. Empowered with quarterly energy use reports to monitor usage and recycling scores, school teams create and implement plans for continued improvement. District-wide savings generated by improved energy and waste management practices are returned to schools, creating further incentives to reduce their utility bills.

Our SERT program unleashes creativity, enthusiasm, and resourcefulness on the part of students and staff. It complements the MCPS K-12 environmental literacy curriculum by providing practical stewardship projects, like those showcased during this month’s Green Strides Best Practices Tour of Francis Scott Key Middle School, one of 14 LEED Gold Certified schools in MCPS. During the tour, Francis Scott Key students spoke about their role in recycling materials at their school and described how they monitor lighting and computer status in classrooms after school. The school features geothermal heating and cooling, a 100 KW solar photovoltaic system, occupancy sensors, and a state-of-the-art storm water management system, all of which provide authentic lessons and project opportunities for teachers and students to explore, research, and analyze.

In MCPS, our Environmental Sustainability Management Plan outlines our goals, strategies, actions, and measurements for a whole array of sustainability areas including energy, transportation, information technology, recycling, and cleaning. Perhaps most importantly, it includes a strong focus on environmental literacy. The plan is a working document that will evolve as new sustainable technologies and practices are invented, and it will continue to help students become better environmental stewards of the world they will inherit.

Laurie Jenkins is Supervisor of Environmental Education Programs and Sean Gallagher is Assistant Director of Facilities Management at Montgomery County Public Schools.