The Whole-School Sustainability Framework

Published on: 
2 Apr 2014
Anisa Heming

This past Saturday, in her address at the National Green Schools Conference in Sacramento, our fearless leader Rachel Gutter inspired the crowd of green schools supporters to leave the conference as ONE VOICE, ONE MOVEMENT. As she pointed out, this imperative to speak with unity is why we think the Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Schools program is so important. And it is also why, at the conference, we released The Whole-School Sustainability Framework, a complement to the Green Ribbon Schools criteria and a resource to guide schools in setting the cultural conditions needed to support sustainability efforts.

Based on years of research by the Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State UniversityThe Whole-School Sustainability Framework illustrates how every school can establish the conditions necessary to support their journey toward sustainability across all three pillars set forth in the Green Ribbon Schools criteria. Successfully advancing whole-school sustainability requires districts to not only change practices and policies but also culture, and this framework helps school leaders and community advocates to focus in on those necessary cultural shifts.

The framework is organized into the three components of schools: organizational culture, physical place and educational program. Within these three components, there are a total of nine principles identified. The report defines each principle, gives relevant research findings (social science, business, education and building science fields), and includes a short case study of a school or district.

The Green Ribbon Schools criteria are helpful in organizing all of the ideas inherent to green schools into actionable metrics. A critical point to be made alongside any discussion of Green Ribbon Schools is that these pillars are meant essentially to drive measurable outcomes. They do not directly take into account the community connectivity, social action and environmental justice values that are central to realizing these sustainable outcomes. One way to look at the utility of Green Ribbon Schools is to see it as the reporting mechanism that is supported by a deep foundation of these values. Schools must foster and support a culture of conservation and shared responsibility to accomplish the goals set out in the three pillars.

Where the Green Ribbon Schools criteria guide a school’s roadmap toward sustainability by defining the ideal outcomes, the Whole-School Sustainability framework can serve as a compass to stay the course. Its components complement Green Ribbon Schools, addressing necessary foundational elements of healthy school culture and leadership.

It is often tempting to compare and contrast frameworks and systems that exist around green schools and extract their differences, looking for commonalities that would make the ‘perfect’ green schools measuring stick. Such an exercise does not accomplish what it sets out to do—and, worse, it often serves to weaken the movement around healthier, greener, more inspiring school environments. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ framework for a school but only the one or combination of several that works best to accomplish a school’s particular goals. Our hope is that the Whole-School Sustainability Framework will help school leaders and advocates understand the cultural conditions that can support whatever pathway towards greener schools they choose to pursue.