Inverness Associates
Supporting schools in sustainability, strategic planning, governance, and leadership mentoring.

Environmental Education and Sustainability in Bay Area Private Schools

In January 2013, Inverness Associates conducted a comprehensive survey of environmental education and sustainability in the San Francisco Bay Area.  The survey was commissioned by the Environmental Education Collaborative (, a group of eight informal environmental organizations, including California Academy of Sciences, The Exploratorium, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, Lawrence Hall of Science, Monterey Bay Aquarium, NatureBridge, and Pie Ranch.  The survey provides a detailed portrait of the successes and challenges experienced by private schools incorporating environmental education and sustainability practices.      

The survey was designed to answer key questions about the nature of environmental educational and sustainability in private schools in 12 Bay Area counties:  what is the state of environmental education (EE) in California private schools?  why do schools adopt environmental education programs and what challenges do they face in that process?  in what ways and to what degree do schools engage with the informal EE community and network of institutions and resources?  what would schools like to see from the informal EE community to strengthen their environmental education programs? 

The survey sought an understanding of how schools’ environmental educational programs develop environmental literacy (environmental knowledge, skills and attitudes) among students.  Sustainability in schools was defined as efficient use of resources, healthy operations, and an ecological curriculum.  Informal EE was described as including activities such as outdoor education, science museums, zoos, aquariums, parks, and the like.  The 12 counties included in the study are: Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Monterey, Napa, San Benito, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Solano, and Sonoma.  The sample of private schools was determined using the California Department of Education (CDE) database and included schools with a minimum enrollment of 50 students, or 512 schools.  Surveys were sent to school principals in January, and the response rate of 22% appeared to be representative of the larger group and allow for meaningful generalizations about the views of principals regarding environmental education and sustainability.

Here are the key findings about the state of environmental sustainability, environmental education programs in schools, informal environmental education and the connection to schools, and the challenges and needs identified by school principals.

1. The State of Environmental Sustainability in Schools

  • • Interest level in environmental sustainability is highest among administrators, faculty and students (those identified as extremely/very interested are 73.9%, 66.1%, and 60.9%), while non-faculty staff, board and parents are less interested (50.9%, 47.3%, 43.1%).
  • • Concern for the environment motivates sustainability efforts (92.0%), which are led by engaged faculty and students (77.7%), and in some schools by the head and board (48.2%).  The desire to save money is a factor but not as important (27.7%).
  • • Just under half of principals report that environmental education and sustainability is reflected in the school’s mission and priorities to a very great/great extent (44.8%). 
  • • Schools have started to organize their environmental education and sustainability efforts through a green council or green team (66.0%), a set of policies to promote environmental education and sustainability (52.1%), and a strategic plan that includes sustainability (38.3%).
  • • About a quarter of schools report sustainability efforts led by a staff member compensated at some level (27.2%), and three-fifth of schools report a strong volunteer presence (59.0%).
  • • Financial support over and above capital expenditures is modest, typically under $5000.
  • • Sustainability efforts in many schools feature a school garden (82.0%), and about half offer a nutritional food program with local and/or organic food (49.0%).
  • • Waste reduction, recycling and/or composting program is widespread (92.2%),
  • • A high percentage of schools are pursuing energy efficiency initiatives (80.4%). 
  • • About half the schools are working to reduce the use of hazardous chemicals (58.8%) and adopt a sustainable approach to landscaping and water use (52.0%).
  • • Green building practices are becoming more common, through LEED construction and renovation and renewable energy (26.5%, 19.6%, 21.6%).

2. Environmental Education (EE) Programs in Schools

  • • Approximately half the schools report the integration of environmental and sustainability concepts, across the curriculum and/or in one subject (e.g., science or mathematics) (51.5%, 55.4%).
  • • Schools report a relatively broad-based approach to environmental education, including outdoor learning experiences (76.6%), service learning projects (73.0%), using the campus as a hands-on learning laboratory (66.7%), teaching in the context of (STEM) instruction (65.8%), or a school garden program (66.7%).          
  • • EE is integrated in the educational program most often in Lower School, less in Middle School and much less in Upper School (Extremely successful/very successful 47.2%, 35.9%, 16.7%).
  • • Almost all school-based EE utilizes teacher-created curricula (93.9%). 
  • • Only a small percentage of schools have professional development in environmental and sustainability education. (To a very great/great extent 13.6%)

3. Informal Environmental Education and the Connection to Schools

  •  • A large number of principals believe that informal environmental education is extremely or very important in helping students achieve environmental literacy (63.9%).
  • • Principals clearly see the vital importance of informal environmental education in enhancing their schools’ curricular programs as reflected in their comments.
  • • Schools use the resources (field trips, curricular, and professional development) of the Environmental Education Collaborative, in some cases extensively, especially for field trips, and to a lesser degree for professional development and curricular resources.
  • • Schools also report using a wide variety of other informal environmental vendors and identified over 100 such organizations.

4. Challenges and Needs

  • • Schedule/time constraints and lack of funding head the list of challenges to enhancing the environmental education and sustainability program (69.5%, 67.4%).
  • • Principals also cite personnel issues--inadequate staffing, lack of training, and insufficient buy-in—as hampering their effort to advance environmental education and sustainability (52.6%, 44.2%, 34.7%).
  • • The main challenges to using informal EE in the schools’ programs are a lack of time, schedule constraints that make field trips difficult, limited funds, and transportation issues including the cost of buses and availability of parent drivers. 
  • • Principals also indicate the lack of quality and fit with the in-school curricula can inhibit connections with informal EE institutions.
  • • To address these challenges, principals would like increased funding, more time and more staff.  In addition they would like enhanced leadership, more buy-in, better organization, more staff training, more integration of environmental education into curriculum, and consulting support.

As a follow up to the survey, interviews with school principals will help expand our understanding of environmental education and sustainability in Bay Area private schools.