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

Green Schools: The Midwest

Thus far my travels on the Green Schools Express have not taken me to my homeland in the Midwest, but I anticipate making a journey there in September.  To incorporate the middle of the country on my map of green schools, I am beginning with this wonderful, "virtual" visit to the Olney Friends School in Ohio.  Stay tuned for more reports this year.

1. Olney Friends School: An Emerging Environmental Mission

Unable to travel to the Midwest this year, I found it a pleasure this winter to sit down in my Berkeley home for an extended conversation with Rich Sidwell, the Head of Olney Friends School, a small 60 student Quaker boarding school founded in eastern Ohio in 1837 that today enrolls student from around the globe and from diverse religious, social and economic backgrounds.  A graduate of Olney Friends himself, Sidwell recently convened a summit called “People, Planet, Place,” to address the bold question, “How does an environmentally aware, independent Quaker high school evolve into something larger than itself?”  With Sidwell’s vision and Olney Friends’ unique history, the school is charting a transformational course that is notable among independent schools.


Rich Sidwell leads by example.  A long time resident in the rolling hills near the school, he returned to his alma mater in 1999 after a varied career in local business, first as business manager and then as Head of School.  He has always been an environmentalist.  Forty years ago he joined with other local residents to help preserve an 840 acre wilderness tract that has grown to 1250 acres.  Twenty years ago he and his wife built a passive solar earth-sheltered house.  He is an active bicyclist and proudly drives a hybrid vehicle.  


In October 2010 Rich Sidwell and his staff convened a Summit called “People, Planet, Place” to chart the course of an “emergent Olney.”  Sidwell challenged participants to “envision life on this planet in a more cooperative, collaborative, and knowledgeable basis than ever before.”  The summit members agreed that Olney Friends School, set on 350 acres of land near the Appalachian mountains in southeast Ohio, two-thirds of which includes a working farm with gardens, pastures and livestock, “inspires experiential and experimental lifelong learning rooted in care for the Earth, and service to local and global communities.”  The school is planning to expand its program on sustainable agriculture through increased vegetable and grass-fed beef production. During the Summit numerous ideas were explored including the development of a sustainable agricultural cooperative, and a certificate program in sustainable agriculture and living.  The transformation underway at Olney Friends School is well described in the Spring 2011 NAIS magazine article by humanities teacher Abby Chew, “Remembering the Ground in Common Ground.”  Reflecting on the recent Summit, she observes: I realize that Olney will learn to take care of its home by using the gifts we have been given—our bountiful land and the diverse family, near and far.”


The Olney Friends initiative builds on what the school describes as a 150 year commitment to “simplicity, sustainability and green practices.”  Science teacher Leonard Guindon spearheads the effort to incorporate sustainability in the curriculum.  “My philosophy of environmental science,” he says, “is that it’s easier to convince people to care about the environment if they love it—if they are familiar with it, if they interact with it.”  His students use the campus and the nearby Captina Creek watershed as their place for real-world scientific study and have engaged in projects that include tree species identification, evaluation of the school’s sewage treatment facility, monitoring water quality in the Captina watershed, and participating in the Green Cup Challenge to reduce energy use.  Students also do community service by working in the organic garden, planting trees through the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, and making maple sugar.  The Olney community has been inspired to pursue environmental initiatives in the wider world.  Alumna Carrie Farrar, for example, helped the insurance company where she worked to focus on becoming greener, and they appointed her to a new position as Sustainability Program Manager.  And Olney gardener Jessica Bilecki has volunteered in Ethiopia to help a village in the Kossoye region create demonstration gardens to increase their ability to feed themselves and improve nutrition.


Olney Friends School shows how one school can embrace environmental education by staying true to its mission, its place in the world, and its historic commitments.  Olney Friends is charting a course toward an “emerging” environmental sustainability and it will be exciting to learn how their journey unfolds.