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

Green Schools: Northern California

From my home base in Berkeley I am systematically visiting green schools in Northern California to document best practices.  Here are the schools I have visited thus far, in order of appearance: 1. Marin Country Day School, 2. Prospect Sierra School, 3. Castilleja School, 4. Marin Academy.


1. Marin Country Day School: An Inspirational Environmental Community

 Nearly a decade ago I served on the Board of Trustees of the Marin Country Day School, and I was eager to return and see how the school had grown.  Arriving on a brisk December morning to a warm and enthusiastic welcome from Head of School Lucinda Lee Katz and Board member Adam Willner, my former student at University High School in San Francisco, I was quickly reminded that MCDS is a remarkable school.   It is full of 550 engaged K-8 students, and teachers and parents who live the School’s mission that “inspires children to love learning…..nurtures a deep senses of respect and responsibility….and challenges them to envision and work toward a better world.”  In the course of my morning, it also became clear that since my time on the Board, MCDS has embraced and implemented a vision of environmental sustainability that is inspirational.

Walking around the 35-acre campus nestled in a watershed in the Marin County hills with Adam, Facilities Director Dan Carlson, and Environmental Sustainability Director Alice Moore, I saw a school environment that had been magically transformed according to the best in green architectural practices.  As a result of the recent Master Plan, MCDS now can boast: a handsome, new LEED Platinum Learning Resource Center, with library, classrooms and tutoring conference rooms;a new Upper School and Fine Arts building; a new LEED Gold complex for the administration building, kitchen/cafeteria, and Fine Arts studios; several solar panel arrays for electric power and water heating; a swail to filter the creek water that runs through the campus; hillside gardens terraced with recycled wood; a workshop where students learn to craft metal sculptures from recycled rebar; renovated classrooms with the latest technology including voice amplification systems for the teachers; and an adjacent nature preserve sponsored by the Nature Conservancy and Marin County Open Space. 


These impressive changes were a direct result of the visionary Strategic Plan adopted by MCDS in 2006 by the Board.  They declared: “We want our students to experience joy and wonder in the natural world and to practice sustaining healthy air, water, soil, plans and animals—and healthy bodies.”  The plan included two key goals: “to develop a green practices action plan that describes cost-effective, campus-wide initiatives to make MCDS facilities and daily practice ecologically sustainable” and “to develop an integrated ecological literacy curriculum for all grade levels.”  From my visit, it appears they have achieved these goals, and then some.


Inspired leaders led change at MCDS.  When Lucinda Lee Katz returned to her native Bay Area from the University of Chicago Lab Schools as the Head of MCDS in 2004, she experienced a new “self-awareness” of her “footprint,” changed her own personal practices, embraced the vision of the strategic plan, and led the successful $25 M Capital Campaign and Master Plan to transform the campus.  Building her leadership team, she appointed as the new Environmental Sustainability Director science teacher Alice Moore, a Bowdoin College alum who was fresh from the NAIS Sustainability Institute in the summer of 2006.  Alice headed up the new Environmental Oversite Committee (EOC) that helped steer the change.  Other members of the team include: Mayer Riff, Assistant Head for Finance and Operations, who showed the community that a green campus could save money in the long run; Trustee Julie Parish, a self-described “radical environmentalist,” who co-chairs the EOC; Food Services Director Jason Hull, who leads the healthy food program that sources much of its produce from Marin Organic and other local farms; Division Heads Barbara Kraemer-Cook and Katherine McNamara, who helped develop an ecological curriculum with support from the Cloud Institute; and many members of the community impelled to make MCDS a model green school.


MCDS is remarkable among green schools because they have developed a systemic approach to environmental sustainability, one that focused simultaneously on the campus facilities, the curriculum, healthy food, and the entire community’s behavior.  What they have accomplished is inspiring.


2. Prospect Sierra School: Empowering Individuals for Sustainability


In the fall 2010 newsletter, Prospect Sierra School Head of School Katherine Dinh wrote a column, “Taking Flight, Let It Roar: Students Finding Their Voices,” to celebrate their student-centered culture.  Founded in 1997 as a merger of two private schools in El Cerrito, this K-8 school of 450 students has long been known for its excellence in promoting student achievement and creativity.  And this is certainly evident in the school’s approach to environmental sustainability, as I discovered firsthand when one of their alumni, Alejo Kraus-Polk, joined us at Head-Royce in 2004, and helped lead a dramatic environmental transformation of his new high school.


According to Katherine Dinh, just last spring the seventh and eight graders at PSS formed one of the country’s first “carrotmobs,” which is a way of encouraging social and environmental responsibility in businesses using positive rewards.  After careful research the students selected a pizza parlor in the nearby city of Emeryville, developed an environmental action plan with the owner who promised to buy a new refrigerator, incorporate recycling, and donate money to an environmental organization in exchange for the attention the students said they would bring.  Indeed, they “mobbed” the business and in just a few hours generated profits equivalent to half a week’s operation.  And in the process, the Prospect Sierra students learned a powerful lesson in environmental activism.


The larger story about Prospect Sierra’s commitment to environmentalism, well told in the PBS documentary “Growing Greener Schools,” is a history of individuals taking action.  Ten years ago a new kindergarten parent, Deborah Moore, who worked for the Environmental Defense Fund for twenty years, noticed that her daughter’s school did not seemed as sensitive to the environment as it could be.  She helped lead an effort that began with reform of a venerable school institution: pizza day.  Students calculated that in just eight days the school generated a ton of waste, presented their findings to the Parents Association, and instituted the school’s first recycling and composting program.  Deborah Moore herself then went on to found the Green Schools Initiative to promote environmental sustainability in schools.


Change at Prospect Sierra has been nurtured by many committed individuals.  Katherine Dinh herself, described by faculty as a “cutting edge leader,” has encouraged her teachers to innovate and help create a better world.  She appointed long-term kindergarten teacher, Kathryn Lee, to a new position as Director of Innovation, Partnerships, and Service.  Raised in California’s San Joaquin Valley, Kathryn developed her love of nature spending time on farms, tending the garden, and backpacking in the Sierra.  Her colleague and LS science teacher Phil Gilsenan was raised in upstate New York where he too developed a love of the “outdoor life.”  Together they collaborative on a series of innovative, place-based curriculum projects focused on the local environment such as a guidebook to the neighborhood Canyon Creek trail and watershed.  Facilities Manager Steve Harrington became an advocate for a green campus, guiding the school to add a large array of solar panels and renovate the campus for energy efficiency using recycled materials.  And Grade 5 math/science teacher Aaron Morehead has created a series of gardens on campus, developed integrated curricular units, and helped with the Campus Green Master Plan that has been designed by parent volunteers.


Prospect Sierra is poised to shape the school’s individual initiatives into a more systemic approach to environmental change.  Led by Aaron Morehead, the new Green Council, composed of four faculty, the Facilities and Innovation Directors, and Head of School, is organizing the initiatives related to the campus, curriculum and food program.  Once again, individual initiative is propelling important change at Prospect Sierra.


3. Castilleja School: Pioneers in the Field


Five years ago while attending a California Association of Independent Schools professional development meeting, I joined a workshop on green schools.  Director of Technology, Steve Taffee, told how Castilleja School, a 7-12 independent girls school of 420 in Palo Alto, had just completed the process to become a green business, one of the first schools in California to be certified.  Inspired by his pioneering work, I organized a team that enabled Head-Royce to become just the third school certified as a green business in Alameda County. 


When visiting the school recently, it was quickly apparent that that pioneering spirit has led to significant environmental initiatives at Castilleja.  Now Director of Strategic Projects, Steve Taffee, who came to the school from an educational software company in Silicon Valley, has been joined by a team of talented individuals to effect major changes to the campus itself.  Matt Montagne, Instructional Technology Coordinator, grew up mindful of environmental constraints during the years of the Carter presidency, and has helped Castilleja students organize Earth Week activities that brought fuel efficient cars to campus, supported their participation in Earthcast, and arranged for periodic speakers on environmental issues.  Parent of a Middle School student and Parents Association green liaison, Diego Fonstad has a personal commitment to the environmental; he just constructed one of the country’s first LEED Platinum homes.  Sherrie Graysmark heads the dining services program and recognizes the importance of the food program in the school’s overall efforts, offering food that is local and organic and a popular cooking class co-sponsored by the Wellness Department.  And the school’s global week planned for January 2011 will focus on “Food Justice and Sustainability.”


Strolling the beautiful campus with Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds Dan Chapman, it was apparent that Castilleja has made major changes in the school's facilities by conducting energy audits to improve efficiency and by saving water with a new synthetic field in the center of the campus.  The school’s experience when building its new athletic center also illustrates the challenges in going green: the large solar array planned for the roof could not be installed due to objections from the City.


Looking to the future, School Head Nanci Hoffman sees the new Master Plan as a great opportunity to embrace sustainable architectural practices by designing a twenty-first century learning environment using the ideas in Architecture for Achievement: Building Patterns for Small School Learning.  Already a leader in global education, Castilleja is beginning to explore environmentalism in the academic program through new courses like “Engineering for Sustainable Solutions.”  With a ten-year strategic master plan in preparation, Castilleja is poised to institutionalize its sustainability practices.  Following their motto, “Women Learning, Women Leading,” Castilleja will surely continue on its pioneering path.





4. Marin Academy--Ecological Mindfulness



Marin Academy--Ecological Mindfulness


When asked how Marin Academy developed its comprehensive approach to becoming a model green school, Mark Stefanski, H.D. Thoreau Faculty Chair for sustainability, has an immediate answer: “We have developed a culture of ‘ecological mindfulness’.”  Stefanski himself, holder of the school’s first endowed chair, has played a key leadership role, with an infectious enthusiasm for students and as a science teacher, garden coordinator and advisor to the Eco-Council.  An independent school of 400 students founded in 1971 in San Rafael, Marin Academy showcases what can happen when visionary leadership promotes institutional change, in the mission, curriculum, food service, campus operation and student culture.


Marin Academy has long been known for its excellence in promoting student leadership, and this tradition is evident in the work of the Eco-Council, a group of students, staff, parents and trustees that “promotes a sustainable way of life within our school and neighboring communities.”  When I met with the student Eco-Action Team, they were busy planning this year’s Green Week to coincide with Earth Day.  Previous celebrations have included bike-to-school, lights out campaigns, educational fair booths featuring local farmers, recycling tips, urban permaculture experts, a grey water demonstration developed by a student, and outside speakers like Michael Pollan.  Asked why they care so deeply, they chimed in: “sustainability is a bigger problem than any other we have faced,” “saving our environment is a critical issue,” and “it’s important to focus on health.”


The students’ environmental consciousness is nurtured by a curricular program that helps them become attuned to nature.  Since its founding, Marin Academy has offered a robust Outings Program, one that now gives students a chance to experience nature on weekend trips that include hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, backpacking, scuba diving, rafting, tide pooling, and gleaning.  The director Peter Poutiatine himself developed a passion for nature as a kid growing up Marin County, rock climbing on Mt. Tamalpais, as a participant in the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and now as a keeper for the school’s beehives.  As he notes, “the purpose of our program is to produce an ‘outings effect,’ an awareness that builds over time, that the things you enjoy doing require preserving.”  A capstone of the curricular program in the new A.P Environmental Science course (APES), and its effect was clear when I joined the class taught by veteran teacher Liz Gottlieb.  Her students were busily engaged in examining case studies about California water use, from state policy highlighted by the draw from Mono and Owens Lakes to Los Angeles to geothermal plants in Inyo County.  The culminating course project requires students to produce “the story of (our) stuff)” by analyzing energy, waste, and water issues on campus.  For Gottlieb the impact of environmental education is profound: “student engagement is high because we focus on real-world problems and critical thinking skills.”  Academic Dean Joe Harvey reinforces this belief by quoting David Orr, who said: “all education is environmental education.”  Environmental curricular change at MA has faced many challenges, he notes, from outside pressures from the SATs and University of California entrance requirements to departmental concerns and questions about the discipline’s academic rigor.  Building on a successful Senior Project program, the school has recently decided to substitute for year-end final exams grade level projects, with Grade 10 focusing on the environment.


Tucked away in a back corner of campus, the school’s garden gives students a laboratory to learn environmental principles surrounding food.  A Garden Stewardship elective enrolls students to manage the garden, while freshman biology students study composting and organic gardening and English students studying Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath learn what makes topsoil.  The garden produces food for the school’s Café, serving nutritional meals prepared by local purveyor called Epicurean.


In recent years Marin Academy constructed a number of new buildings including a gymnasium and administration center. In part because their effort preceded the national green building movement spearheaded by LEED and CHPS, they elected not to seek certification, but rather to focus on behavioral changes and energy efficiencies as a first step.  Their campus facilities leadership team consists of CFO Mike Joyce, a geologist by training with an MBA from UC Berkeley who previously worked for the Public Land Trust in San Francisco, and Director of Operations, Michael Morris, who provided leadership in hiring Nexant to conduct a comprehensive energy audit to effect change.  The question of embracing renewable energy is one that they are addressing.


Looking to the future, School Head Travis Brownley, in her fourth year leading Marin Academy, recognizes the challenge of “sustaining sustainability.”  Building on the “infectious enthusiasm” of the Eco-Council, she is leading the effort to “institutionalize sustainability” by finding the necessary financing and by promoting systems thinking.  With a solid base, Marin Academy is clearly poised to make environmental sustainability part of the school’s strategic vision.