Greening a K-12 Curriculum
Seemingly small things can lead to big changes in a school, when the moment is right and the community is willing. But changes that ultimately cut across all disciplines and grades are truly remarkable, especially when they take place in an institution founded back when Grover Cleveland was president and California had only recently become the 31st state in the union. Still, that is what happened at Head-Royce School, a K-12 independent school in Oakland, California that has committed itself to greening its entire curriculum.
The story begins one spring day in 2006 when Alejo Kraus-Polk, a 15-year-old sophomore, walked into head of school Paul Chapman's office on a mission: He wanted to invite the executive director of the Berkeley-based Green Schools Initiative to Head-Royce because he wanted to see his school go green. And he was not alone. Shortly after, junior Yaeir Heber would be elected student council president on a platform that emphasized environmental action.
Chapman, who saw Kraus-Polk as "nature smart" and part of a growing students' crusade for the environment, approved the request and attended the talk. Having recently seen Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, he was immediately hooked.
"That period of time was like a moment of spontaneous combustion," recalls Chapman, who has led Head-Royce for 25 years. "For me, it was like revisiting 1968." It became clear that today's environmental issues are so momentous, urgent, and central to education that they present an opportunity to take a stand on the right side of history. At this point of instability, in other words, Chapman provided the leadership that allowed new structures, new forms of behavior, and a new order to emerge in the ways in which Head-Royce related to the environment.
Asking himself what Head-Royce could do to become a model green school, Chapman decided the most important first step was to signal commitment from the top-down. So he went to the board and persuaded them to approve a green mission comprising four goals:
- Create a healthy environment.
- Use resources in a sustainable way.
- Develop an educational program.
- Pursue a nutritional health program
"Putting this in place before we got started was critical," says Crystal Land, assistant head of school and academic dean. "‘Green' didn't just mean composting and recycling, or even greening the building. But this [statement of goals] opened things up to discussion of the need for a green curriculum and role modeling, and what all of this means in the classroom."
It also led to an explosion of activities — initiated by students, faculty, staff, and administrators. Among them, Head-Royce:
- Formed a green council of 12 voting members, most of them students;
- Changed the school's mission statement to add a "love of nature" to the qualities that educators seek to develop in their students;
- Installed more than 400 solar panels;
- Turned a steep hill into a lush garden of native plants, fruit trees, and other edibles to be used as an outdoor classroom;
- Conducted a student-run trash audit and cut its overall landfill output in half; and
- Held school assemblies and an all-day conference on sustainability for Head-Royce's high school students.
Chapman and Land also encouraged faculty members to find personal connections to the green school mission. Some teachers initiated waste-free lunches; others took field trips to a waste management center that proved profoundly eye-opening, revealing just how much waste the community produces every day; still others got deeply engaged in the new garden. One particularly important opportunity revolved around the creation of a book group. Over a summer break, Land asked teachers to read one of four books (How Much is Enough? by Alan Durning; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver; Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert; or The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan) and then meet to discuss them according to their interests.
"This allowed teachers to connect with one of the four tenets pretty meaningfully — to come to a place of seeing, ‘Oh, this relates to my life,'" says Land. "It's not just what we are doing as a school but also as individuals. There is great power in that."
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