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

Green Schools: New England

The Green School Express: New England                           October 18-21, 2010

As part of my effort to learn about the national movement to promote environmental sustainability in schools, I spent a beautiful week amidst the spectacular fall colors in New England visiting ten remarkable schools.  Here are the individual school reports from that week.

1-4.  A Sustainable Educational Community: Shelburne Farms, the Burlington, Vermont Public Schools, and the Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center

My visit to Shelburne Farms and three partnering organizations, the Sustainability Academy/Barnes Elementary School, Champlain Elementary School, and the Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center, demonstrated how systemic educational reform can be fostered when like-minded leaders link arms to improve education for school children. 

On a chilly, bright autumn day, I began my visit with Margaret Burke, field trip coordinator for Shelburne Farms.  Housed in the Farm Barn on a historic, 1890s, 1400-acre working farm, Shelburne Farms is a non-profit environmental organization whose mission is to “cultivate a conservation ethic by teaching and demonstrating the stewardship of natural and agricultural resources.”  The Farm offers a year-round series of environmental programs for school children that serve over 100 schools a year, and they also provide on-going professional development workshops and consulting for educators in schools throughout the region and from around the country.  Walking the grounds with Margaret, we observed a second grade class just arrived from St. Albans elementary school on the border near Quebec; quickly they were oriented to the environmental expectations for the day with a short meeting about the importance of recycling, for which they had prepared by packing lunches that would have a low-trash impact. When lead teacher Laura held up a blue tub and asked, “does everyone know what this is for?” every child raised an enthusiastic hand.  Breaking into small groups, the students prepared for the day with an inquiry-based lesson on forest ecology.  Reading through the letters sent by students who had just completed a program the previous week, it was clear how powerful the impact of the Shelburne Farms education can be.  As one wrote, “thank you so much for this awesome experience.  I really enjoyed this hands-on work.  I learned that sustainability is an important thing to have at a farm.  At the dairy I learned that the cycle to get cheese is sun and water makes the grass grow which the dirt grows in and the cows eat, then make milk and then farmers then make cheese and weigh.”  Another observed, “”Today was the most fun school day of my life.  I am going to help the sustainability by not mowing the grass as much as I used to do.”

Building on the rich programs of professional development and school field trips at the Farm, Shelburne decided to reach out early in this new century to build partnerships with specific schools to promote systemic change.  Jen Cirillo joined Shelburne as their Sustainable Schools Project Director in 2003 and developed pioneering programs with two elementary schools in nearby Burlington.  Linking up with Fourth/Fifth Grade Teacher Colleen Cowell at Champlain Elementary School, a K-5 school serving 300 students in a middle income community in South Burlington, they developed a series of voluntary, professional development workshops for the faculty that have transformed the school.  Having been inspired by a Shelburne Farms sustainability workshop in 1999 that focused on civic responsibility, community development, whole child, health education, Colleen was ready to partner.  With the enthusiastic support of the school’s principal, Nancy Zonheeser, they created a summer in-service for faculty volunteers on environmental education.  On a very hot August day in 2002, the entire faculty labored in a nearby field participating in a gleaning project; tired and warm, they came back committed to the work they would then undertake.  Over the next half dozen years, they have revamped the curriculum to focus on developing a curriculum that is place-based, interdisciplinary and grounded in the community.  The result has been systemic change, involving a new curriculum with a strong emphasis on science, a new school garden tied into a healthy food program, and strong parental involvement in the changes.


Across town Barnes Elementary School has historically served a low-income population that in recent years has included a large number of immigrants.  Because of low tests scores, it was considered low performing and facing possible closure.  Instead, with the infusion of professional development support from Shelburne Farms it has transformed itself into the Sustainability Academy that was designated a magnet school by the district in 2009, is the only public elementary school in the country devoted to environmental sustainability, and now has to turn away families eager to enroll their children.  Change Barnes was led by long-term Grade Four/Five teacher Anne Tewksbury-Frey, who began her own transformation with a professional development program sponsored by Shelburne Farms.  With the appointment of Jen Cirillo as director of the Sustainable Schools Project, Barnes initiated a sustainability program that began with a recycling program, a healthy food initiative that eventually led to a revamping of the Burlington Schools central kitchen to embrace more healthy, local and organic food, and widened into a reformed curriculum program that focuses on the question “what is sustainability” in each classroom.  Now Barnes’ campus is being retrofit to achieve a significant reduction in energy costs including the installation of a new solar array, and Anne Tewksbury-Frey has assumed new responsibilities as the Sustainability Coach for the school and assists other schools in the district.

In the spring of 2010 Barnes has also made a connection with the nearby Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center (LCCSC), where the education director Jen Guimaraes created a three-week program for fourth and fifth graders in which students create a watershed, learn to sail, measure water quality at shore and in the lake, and conduct a survey to measure the human impact of the lake on the nearby community.


The Sustainability Project provides a sterling example of how non-profit environmental groups can partner with local schools to instill a passion for environmental sustainability in this next generation of students.  As we face significant environmental challenges in coming years, the transformation in Burlington points the way to reform schools and prepare students for leadership in this new century.




5. The Mountain School:  Living and Learning Sustainably


With temperatures hovering in the twenties, I made my way in the early morning light through the rolling Vermont countryside from Montpelier to Vershire, where I discovered the Mountain School perched on a ridge with stunning views of the White Mountains to the east.  Kit Leckerling, who has been teaching U.S. History and managing the woodlot at the school for the last six years, met me and we quickly began to explore the campus.  After an hour and a half of non-stop conversation, it became clear that the Mountain School offers high school students a unique opportunity to live sustainably.


The original Mountain School was founded in 1964 by Mac and Doris Conard, who had previously taught at the nearby Putney School.  The Conards sold the farm and school to the Milton Academy in the early eighties; two Milton teachers, David and Nancy Grant, recruited a committed team of teachers, farmers, and cooks to reopen the Mountain School as a semester program. The school offers an immersion experience for 45 high school juniors each semester on a 300-acre farm.  All students take significant roles in running the farm, including a substantial vegetable farm; producing hay and maple syrup; splitting, and stacking the 100 cords of wood required to heat the campus; completing basic farm, kitchen, cleaning, and maintenance chores; and tending to the cattle, goats, chickens, pigs, sheep, and turkeys.  The School uses the physical site as a learning laboratory, with energy provided by chunk wood furnaces using firewood carefully harvested on the property to achieve a carbon neutral goal as selective thinning from below stimulates new and more vigorous growth in the forest.  All of the vegetables and meat consumed at the school come from the operations of the farm, and the central kitchen building contains large storage and refrigeration facilities.


The curriculum has been tailored to this unique setting, with all students required to take a place-based English seminar and an Environmental Science course that involves each student studying a place on the campus to learn how to read in the features of the landscape the impact that geology, climate, geography, and human use have had on the site.  The program emphasizes the importance of community.  All students live in small houses on the property with their faculty dorm parents; they gather after breakfast for a daily assembly, spend the morning in classes tied to a rigorous college preparatory program, work for several hours on the farm after lunch, and conclude the afternoon with classes from four to six.


The Mountain School offers a unique opportunity for motivated, curious high school students to embrace a more sustainable lifestyle.  Based on their recent reunion with returning alumni, the experience apparently is having a life-long impact.



6. The Putney School: A Sustainable Way of Life


“The Putney School stands for a way of life,” states the mission of the school, one of the nation’s oldest progressive academies.  Founded in 1935, the school has long been committed to providing high school students a community where they can pursue a strong liberal arts education that incorporates living on a 300 acre working dairy farm.  While progressive education has experienced cycles of public enthusiasm, the school’s commitment to environmental sustainability has been constant.  As the Director Emily Jones observes about the current environmental movement in schools, “the world has caught up with us!” 


When I visited the school on a sunny, crisp October day, Putney revealed many aspects of its comprehensive educational program that promote sustainability.  The commitment to using resources sustainably led the Board of Trustees to decide in the fall of 2008 to construct a new gymnasium that incorporates the most advanced principles of green building design.  Proudly shown by the school’s CFO Randy Smith, the gymnasium is powered by a significant array of photovoltaic solar cells that tracks with the sun’s movement for maximum efficiency.  The building is insulated to ensure that the steel frame does not conduct the temperature into the interior space, and motor-driven windows automatically open in the evenings to flush warm air out and take advantage of the prevailing winds.  The building’s operation is presented in real-time by a computer screen powered by Periscope software that illustrates the use of heat, water, light and ventilation.  For all these reasons, Putney is rightly proud to have a LEED Platinum building that, according to their analysis, will pay for itself in operation cost savings.


The school offers a special opportunity for the students to understand and contribute to the daily operation of the 500-acre farm.  All students “are expected to contribute meaningfully to the work program that sustains the School community and the farm on which it is located.”  As one of Putney’s Basic Principles states, “We live close to the land and cultivate an appreciation of nature.”


While environmental connectedness has always been part of Putney’s mission, in recent years the School has made a more explicit commitment to strengthen its initiatives.  The Strategic Plan now incorporates sustainability as a specific priority: “In light of concerns over global warming and the end of the oil economy, we will need to build into our educational program and our own decision-making attention to and concern for environmental sustainability.”  The school has embarked on an effort to “make Putney’s leadership in education for sustainability a model for other school and communities….”  Clearly the school is well on the way to achieving its goal.


7. Northfield-Mt. Hermon: Founded for Sustainability


In the 2006-07 school year, Northfield Mt. Hermon, a coed boarding school with 650 students in north central Massachusetts, experienced a dramatic resurrection of their environmental initiatives.  Several years earlier the Office of Environmental Education was discontinued in favor of the school’s impressive global education program that enrolls students from around the world in a multinational, diverse community of learners and which sends students to programs in countries from South Africa and Brazil to New Zealand and Turkey.  The arrival of a new head of school, Tom Sturtevant, and the hiring of science teacher Becca Leslie reenergized the environmental program on campus.


Northfield Mt. Hermon was primed to become a leader in the environmental field.  Since the founding of the Northfield and the Mt. Hermon Schools in the 1880’s by Dwight L. Moody, the institution has long given students an opportunity for a first-class education, initially offering local farm kids a chance to get an education in the classics and now serving a student body from across the country and around the world.  The motto of the “head, heart and hand,” adopted by many progressive schools since then, reveals the schools commitment to a rigorous academic program designed to develop strong citizens who understand the world of work.  The modern campus occupies a beautiful, several hundred acre site overlooking the Connecticut River and includes an operating farm in which all students participate in regular chores from chopping wood to producing maple syrup. 


Becca Leslie herself has had a long engagement in environmental issues.  She remembers fondly a moment in her senior year in high school when her father taught her in a class on environmental literature; the poignant reading of “Thinking Like A Mountain” in Aldo Leopold’s Sand Country Almanac helped her see the harsh human impact on the natural world, and also gave her a sense of hope through individual action.  While studying ecology in college, she volunteered for environmental groups like the Sierra Club and MassPirg, and later worked for the New England Aquarium and an experiential education program called Sea Camp in Florida.  With these diverse experiences she was well primed to take a lead role in the changes at Northfield-Mt. Hermon.


Following an inspirational conference at Lawrenceville with like-minded educators from Exeter, Darrow and Portsmouth Abbey, she and fellow teacher Sarah Rebick, who had worked in the Office of Environmental Education, made a presentation to senior staff on the imperative to reenergize the school’s program.  With encouragement from her head of school, Sarah chaired the new Environmental Task Force for several years before leading a domestic travel program focused on the human connections to the landscape in the US.  Becca then took on the leadership of the group, with diverse participants including dining services, facilities, finance, the farm program, and six students, faculty and staff.  Focusing initially on buildings, food, water and waste, the group promoted systematic changes in the school’s operations.  NMH helped launch the Green Cup Challenge, sponsored by the Green Schools Alliance, beginning with four schools and now involving over 150 nationwide. 


Based on its sustained work to date, NMH is now engaged with eight other boarding schools in New England to pilot test the adaptation of the STAR standards developed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).  
This important initiative promises to strengthen the national environmental education movement by providing common criteria to answer the question: what is a green school?  Clearly, NMH is in the vanguard of our green schools movement.


8. St. Paul’s School: Evolutionary Change


St. Paul’s School, a coeducational boarding school for 535 students on an 1800 acre campus, offers a unique environment to teach students about environmental sustainability.  With the appointment in 2008 of Maura Adams as the Environmental Sustainability Manager, the school began to move toward that objective by embracing a change process that is both organic and opportunistic.


Maura Adams herself grew up in Wisconsin, attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison where she majored in environmental studies and history, sparked by her first course freshman year when she was simply asked to spend 30 minutes observing nature outside her classroom.  With further training at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, where she received a master’s in Environmental Management, she worked at Harvard as Director of Campus Energy Reduction.  After a move to New Hampshire, she was discovered three years ago by St. Paul’s hired to invigorate their sustainability initiatives.  With a broad portfolio, she has worked to bridge the two cultures, one that focuses on facilities issues with the desire to enhance educational program.  Maura describes her job as working as a “consultant” to the many constituencies at St. Paul’s and is proud of the progress the school has made in recent years in areas as diverse as a bike share program, more nutritious food in the dining facility, the adoption of green cleaning agents, and more Energy star appliances.  In the past year the School has developed innovative land use practices.  They lease seven acres of school property to a local farmer, who shares the profits of his work with the school by providing produce directly to the school dining service.  The Medical Director, who has a strong interest in sustainability, has joined the effort, bringing a beehive and a chicken coop to campus.  With a significant building program underway, the school is incorporating green construction practices.  


To ensure a close link to students, Maura co teaches an upper division elective, Modern Environmental Literature and Ethics.  Joining a dozen juniors and seniors at the start of the day gave me a chance to hear directly their thoughts on environmental sustainability (“learning to use the earth in a way that will maintain it indefinitely”, “appreciating what we have”), the importance of classes focused on environmentalism (“it helps us understand the media’s focus on this important issue”, “we can develop a personal relationship with nature”), and how they cope with the magnitude of the challenges we face (“we have to be proactive and make a difference”, “I hope to choose a path of personal commitment”).  The students are proud of St. Paul’s commitments to sustainability, from the frequent talks by outside experts like Bill McKibben to the incorporation of cage-free eggs in the dining service offerings.


St. Paul’s School has clearly embraced environmental sustainability, and according to Maura Adams, is on the threshold of moving their program from its organic phase to a more systematic, integrated approach.


9. Phillips Exeter: Change from the Top


Exeter Academy, a coed boarding school of over 1000 students in southern New Hampshire, has spent the past decade engaged in a systematic effort to green the school.  According to Principal Tom Hassan, the school entered this new century with a need to galvanize efforts that were waning.  And after ten years of focused effort, the school is again at a turning point in its initiatives.


“Individual champions" carried on the early sustainability efforts at Exeter” but in 2001 their energy was waning, prompting the group to write the head of school and ask for help.  As Assistant Head, Tom Hassan was given the responsibility to lead the response, and he promptly organized an informal group that included faculty, students, and staff from the dining hall and physical plant, one of the first cross-constituency teams that was then named the Environmental Task Force.  They quickly identified various action steps, including switching to more efficient light bulbs, developing a policy to reducing idling by athletic team buses, establishing a used textbook exchange, and reviving the eProctors in the 29 dorms to have a student-to-student campaign to change behavior.  Two watershed developments followed.  The school decided to refocus one of the teaching fellow positions into an environmental fellow, a move that paved the way for a permanent Sustainability Coordinator position.  At the same time, the chair of the Board of Trustees, an Exeter alumnus and architect named Jim Rogers, initiated a parallel process that led to the first Environmental Mission Statement.  Soon the two groups merged, creating a powerful institutional commitment.


Six years ago Jennifer Wilhelm assumed the role of Environmental Education Fellow and over the years has helped to lead the school’s efforts to achieve systemic change.  Raised in New York, she began a life-long love of nature when she attended a summer camp sponsored by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.  After studying environmental science as an undergraduate at Green Mountain College, she received an M.S. in Environmental Conservation from the University of New Hampshire and continued to work for the university’s initiatives, helping to develop its support for K-12 farm-to-school programs.  Joining Exeter in 2005, she worked on implementing the mission created by the board.  This proved a challenge, she noted, because a systematic process of identifying goals, objectives and action plans did not follow immediately from the vision statement.  As the school’s self-report on the NAIS web site notes, a three-year effort to review the curriculum ended in a decision to table the proposals.  Now, under her leadership, the school has evolved the Environmental Task Force into the Sustainability Advisory Committee, composed of 14 members including faculty, staff and students, and renewed momentum is evident.  Importantly, Exeter has joined with eight other New England boarding schools to pilot test the adaptation of the STARS standards developed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).  


Exeter’s decade long-experience with environmental sustainability testifies to the importance of mission-driven change, backed by clear organizational responsibility and accountability.



10. The White Mountain School: A Culture of Environmental Sustainability

Founded as a private girls’ school in the nineteenth century, White Mountain School move to its present location nestled in the White Mountains of New Hampshire just north of the rugged and dramatic Franconia Notch. In 1935, and in recent years it has established a significant cultural focus on sustainability.  The school’s sustainability curriculum, farm-work program, food service that uses produce grown in their own garden, are distinctive features of the WMS offering.  My student tour guide, Will Mazimba, the son of a diplomat from the Tonga tribe in Zambia, told me that the school’s commitment was what brought him and his three sisters half way around the world to attend.  Two factors appear to have helped this small school of 100 boarding students embrace environmentalism: board vision and a cohesive leadership team. 


WMS clearly has benefited from the commitment of one of its parents, Ruth Cook, who served for seventeen years as the chair of the Board of Trustees, and whose passion for the environment led her to write the school’s sustainability mission. As a result WMS has forged a cohesive leadership team to guide the current initiatives. White Mountain School is one of the few schools in the country with a separate Sustainability Studies Department.  Recently appointed school head Tim Breen served as a member of the faculty and dean of studies, having taught in several boarding schools including St, Paul’s, completed his graduate work at Michigan in environmental education, and worked in the New England Appalachian Mountain Club; he was inspired to commit to education for sustainability when he participated in a watershed study of the Rouge River in Michigan that illustrated the powerful social class differences in the impact of the river’s pollution.  Adam Nyborg has just succeeded Torrey McMillan, founding director of the Sustainability Department, and he himself brings significant environmental study to his work; educated at The Thomas Jefferson HS of for Science and Technology in Virginia, he attended Deep Springs College in California, and received a B.A. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Yale.  Initially he ran the farm program at WMS and now teaches environmental science. His fellow teacher Deandra Brassard also has a strong environmental background as she received a B.S in biology and environmental science before working for several environmental education groups including the US Forest Service, Kaywadin, and the Massachusetts Audubon Society. 


The leadership team spoke honestly about the challenges they face. Newly hired Dean of Studies Mercedes Pour-Previti worked in boarding schools and the Forest Service before joining WMS and now sees her challenge to orient other new faculty to the school’s mission.  With a separate department founded by a strong, visionary educator, how will they broaden the commitment throughout the curriculum?  And as s a small school, how will the gain the resources to make further improvements to the plant. Because of its small size, WMS has been able to develop a sustainability culture that appears to be deeply engrained and part of the school’s brand in the private-independent school world.