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

Green Schools: Southern California

In January 2011 I visited ten schools in the Southern California in search of best practices in environmental sustainability.  The reports on my visits appear in order of my itinerary and include:  1.  Pasadena Polytechnic School, 2. Environmental Science and Technology High School, 3. Marlborough School, 4. Environmental Charter High School, 5. Windward School, 6. Crossroads School, 7. Turning Point School, 8. Besant Hill School, 9. Thacher School, and 10. Cate School.

1. Pasadena Polytechnic School---Rebuilding a Green Campus


When Head of School Debbie Reed and her Board of Trustees first announced their plan in 2004 to renovate the nearly 100-year-old campus of the Pasadena Polytechnic School, “greening the campus” was just an idea.  The effort focused on the need to provide better academic facilities that were accessible and affordable and that retained the historic flavor of this K-12 school of 860 students on 15 acres adjacent to Cal Tech.  As the project gained momentum, however, and with input from the community, the campus rebuild soon focused on fostering a more sustainable, green school environment.  How that happened, and how it impacted the learning community, is impressive.


For Debbie Reed to build green was “to do what was right.”  Raised a “Yankee” outside Boston, she remembers being raised in a frugal household, where her mother would turn off the heat at a set time in the spring, regardless of the weather conditions, just to save energy.  CFO Keith Huyssoon saw the project in more pragmatic terms as a way to go green and incorporate efficiencies in the operations of the plant.  Reed recruited a Polytechnic parent, Lisa Matthiessen, to consult on the project, and her expertise was invaluable as a consultant for LEED, the US Green Building Council certification program.  The daughter and granddaughter of Cal Tech professors, she participated in one of the first LEED prototype projects in the 1990s, helped write the regulations recently adopted by the City of Pasadena requiring new commercial construction to be LEED certified, and brought a refreshing outlook; “you don’t have to spend a lot of money to build green,” she said.  With this team of advisors, the school hired an architect and contractor in 2005 who were both LEED certified.


With a Board-embraced vision led by Facilities Chair Alan Steinbrecher, technical expertise, and the support of a $75 M capital campaign, the school was ready to bring environmental sustainability to Poly in a big way.  After two years of construction, the school will finish its new North Campus this spring, including new science labs, a library and tech center, arts rooms, cafeteria, classrooms, parking garage, and administration building.  The school is hopeful that all structures within this new construction will be certified LEED Gold. 

No sooner will phase one be completed that the demolition teams will arrive and the school will begin an eighteen-month reconstruction of the South Campus, principally for high school instruction.  This effort will also seek LEED certification and incorporate renewable energy with solar panels.  By 2013, Pasadena Polytechnic will feature a campus completely revamped according to the some of the best environmental sustainability principles.


The leadership team agrees that building green has spawned a resurgence of green consciousness among faculty and students.  Upper School Science teacher Ellen Santochi exemplifies this building commitment.  A biologist by training and a 21 year veteran at the school, she early in life developed a love of gardening, flowers, and hiking, and loved spending time with her Texas grandfather, a self-taught naturalist and expert in snakes and spiders.  Now she is pioneering a new Environmental Science elective for seniors that incorporates projects focused on the immediate Poly campus that require students to address real-world issues in an EIR (Environmental Impact Review).  Students study problems of waste, water, and energy use and propose solutions to the administration; their recent study of the school’s carbon footprint promises to reduce emissions from the school.  Asked what impact the course had on students, Santochi recalled a recent evaluation from a student who noted, “This was the first time in my education at Poly that I was doing something real that would make a difference.”  In recent years the faculty has developed a process for reviewing the K-12 curriculum, and the three divisions are now incorporating aspects of environmental education.


Pasadena Polytechnic School demonstrates the power of example.  By embracing a vision of a green campus, the school’s leadership empowered the school to move vigorously to embrace a culture of environmental sustainability.



2. Environmental Science and Technology HS—A New, Green Charter School


When principal Howard Lappin got the chance to lead another Los Angeles public school and open the Environmental Science and Technology HS (ESAT) in the fall of 2009, he jumped at the chance.  With 290 students in grades 9 and 10 this year, the school is well on its way to achieving full enrollment on schedule in the 2012-13 school year.  And what is more, the facility is located in a new, state-of-the-art LEED Gold building originally constructed for use by the Los Angeles Community Colleges. 


The driving force behind this new, environmentally-focused school, Lappin has devoted his educational career to helping underserved students of color in Los Angeles.  With twenty years experience as a teacher and administrator, in 1989 he took on the task of turning around the Forshay Learning Center, one of the poorest performing schools in the district.  In 2004 he served as the founding principal of the Gertz-Ressler High School, a charter school operated by the Alliance College-Ready Schools.  In just six years Alliance, an independent non-profit charter management organization has opened 18 small, personalized, public middle and high schools in Los Angeles; their growth plan will have them operating 50 schools to serve over 20,000 students.  Alliance schools focus on high goals for students who must pass the courses required for UC system entrance, a disciplined culture of respect and responsibility, and the expectation that all graduates will enter a four-year college or university.


At ESAT the mission, in addition to focusing on college admissions, includes a green theme: “As a school we will work to help our students understand the environment and their role in protecting it.  We will also help our students prepare for future careers in the fields of environmental science and technology.”  The school’s culture is being shaped by five core values:  “high expectations for all students, small personalized schools and classrooms, increased instructional time, highly qualified principals and teachers, and parents as partners.”  The school serves a diverse community that is 98% Hispanic, 1% African American, 1% other, with 31% English Language Learner students, and 93% free or reduced meal program participants. The results after the first year are impressive; ESAT students achieved an Academic Performance Index (API) score of 859 in 2010, which ranked it the 7th top-performing public high school in LAUSD.

Environmental sustainability is a vital part of this new school.  With a LEED Gold site, “the environmental theme made sense,” says Lappin.  Initially the curriculum includes a required course in Environmental Science, and students this year are taking Advanced Placement Environmental Science.  With an emphasis on recycling including a new solar-powered trash compactor, an Environmental Club to promote student interest, ESAT eventually will incorporate renewable energy generated by an array of solar panels over the parking lot and community partnerships to help students learn about their local ecosystem.  Strolling the wide hallways and classrooms filled with natural light and clean air, observing students well engaged in their learning in small classes generally averaging two dozen, I felt that this was a well-ordered school.

Having worked for thirty-five years in several independent and public schools, I always have believed that “small is beautiful.”  ESAT suggests that there is real wisdom in building the next generation of schools as small, gathered communities where students will be known, and rise to higher expectation.  It seemed clear from my visit that the Environmental Science and Technology HS is off to a very promising beginning, providing a high quality education for Los Angeles youth.



3. Marlborough School—Girls in the Lead


Since its founding as a school for girls in grades 7-12 in 1889, the mission of the Marlborough School has been to nurture in young women a desire for “academic excellence, leadership skills and confidence…in a school exclusively devoted to their education (that) enables each student to develop her fullest potential so that she may contribute in a global society.”  Ten years ago when I headed the school’s accrediting committee, I was impressed with the way the school was educating their young women for leadership.  And it was a pleasure to return and see that since then Marlborough has devoted considerable energy to “greening the school” in every area from the program to the plant.


Four years ago the Board of Trustees declared: “Marlborough School strives to become a community where environmental stewardship will be achieved through awareness and action.”  In its comprehensive statement of Environmental Guiding Principles, the school observed that it is “our responsibility to encourage and practice habits that safeguard the health of present and future generations, foster greater understanding of our impact on the environment, and build a more sustainable campus and community.”  With this broad statement of intent, the school embarked upon an effort to reform its practices, in decision-making, campus operations, curricular development, and student activities.  As long-term School Head Barbara Wagner said, “Environmental sustainability at Marlborough has been a grass-roots effort, one that has especially nurtured student-initiated leadership projects.”


It was my good fortune to meet with a number of Marlborough’s student leaders.  Two years ago when she was in Middle School, Sophie Salmore was impressed that Barbara Wagner joined the Green Schools Alliance and she “wanted to be part” of the environmental effort.  As a high school freshman she campaigned to help start the school’s new, edible garden, supported by Heart Beet Gardening that is run by one of the school’s alums.  Volunteering with the Natural Resource Defense Council, Sophie was inspired to start a new campus club called the Seedling Project.  On my visit day, Sophie held the club’s first speaker’s event featuring Kelly Meyer, Co-Chair of the Leadership Council of the LA NRDC, who presented a program of the American Heart Association called the “Teaching Garden,” which helps schools around the country start their own edible school yard programs.  (As it turns out, their head gardener started the program at Head-Royce School in 2008!)  Fellow sophomore Alexa Boghosian has shown similar leadership, founding GreenTeens that enlists Marlborough students to offer environmental education classes in Los Angeles public elementary schools.  While volunteering with the California Science Center, she says, “I quickly understood the need for environmental literacy in public and charter schools and decided to create a program to increase students’ understanding, inspire them to take action, and empower them to lead their communities towards environmental stewardship and thereby cultivating “green” citizenship within the Los Angeles area.” 


Empowered by the Environmental Guiding Principles the administration and faculty at Marlborough have turned their attention to reforming the school.  As Middle School Head Bob Bryan explained, the administration created the Environmental Committee to “do the things that were feasible to do” by focusing on “daily conduct.”  Bryan proudly showed me many of their notable accomplishments including the new Café M that brings locally-grown food to the school, the students’ garden project, and the newly constructed, beautiful LEED Silver Munger Hall that houses arts and classroom facilities and a state-of-the-art library and media center.  Helping to lead the campus sustainability initiatives, Finance & Operations Director Nick Hernandez and Technology Director Stuart Posin described the school’s systematic effort to change behavior, from a green purchasing policy to reducing energy use.  Future projects may well include a solar array and artificially turfed athletic field.


Marlborough School is playing a special role in environmental education by inspiring the next generation of young women to lead the movement.



4. Environmental Charter HS—Small is Beautiful


When I first met Sara Laimon at the Green California Schools Summit, I knew I wanted to visit the Environmental Charter HS.  Creator of the school’s Green Ambassadors program, she has brought her passion and organizing talents to ensuring the success of this new school.  A candidate for her Wisconsin city’s governing board when just a teenager, she helped found a dairy farm in Zimbabwe and is devoted to “educating youth about the importance of actively contributing and being a steward of this planet.”  Her passion is reflected in the impressive track record of this young charter school in Lawndale just south of Central Los Angeles that serves 450 students, 80% of whom are financially disadvantaged.


Founded in 1999, the mission of ECHS is to prepare its students for admission to four-year colleges and universities.  In addition to a challenging academic program, there is a special focus on the environment as the school seeks to empower students to “become quality stewards of their community and world.”  Students are required, the school notes, to “problem-solve local civic and environmental issues, and take action to make a measurable impact,” and they take part in an outdoor education program to develop self-confidence and leadership skills.   In order to receive a diploma all students must apply and be admitted to a 4-year university.  The impressive list of acceptances received by the Class of 2010 is posted in the front office for all to see.


Speaking with the leaders of the school, it was evident that they bring passion and experience to running their school.  Principal Jenni Taylor joined ECHS when it opened in 2002 and brought a strong background in environmental education.  Raised in nearby Manhattan Beach, she says that whitewater rafting trips with her father, who worked with Friends of the River, inspired her to become a rafting guide on the Kern River where she learned to work with people of all different backgrounds in a beautiful place.  With a B.S. in Earth Science and a B.A. in Environmental Science from UC Santa Cruz, Jenni served as an instructor with Naturalists at Large, leading students on California adventure trips that stressed environmental principles.  She described her school’s efforts to develop a unique environmental curriculum that includes a project-based, month-long, inter-term program in which the four high school grades each focus on a different theme: designing sustainably built colleges, how to measure progress in society, the role cities have played in the American dream, and social justice investigations on topics like immigration, standardized tests, and teen pregnancy. 


Faculty member Matthew Morrissey joined the school two years ago to run the Green Ambassadors course for sophomores.  Growing up in Appleton, Wisconsin, he was aware of the negative environmental impact from the local paper production company and as a result decided to study environmental science in college and graduate school.  In his course, his students receive a comprehensive introduction to environmental education that features systems thinking, and a study of recycling, water, food, and natural history.  Students are trained how to create power point presentations, raise funds, communicate their ideas and host events to support a cause of their interest.


The ECHS students attend a school that has taken special care to use the local site to teach environmental principles.  A sign entitled “The Earth is Our Playground” describes various components in the environmental campus: an amphitheater built with recycled concrete, a bioswale, rainwater catchment barrels, recycling centers, two campus gardens, and murals featuring student art work about the environment. 


The mission of this small educational community appears to be having a significant impact. The school was featured in the PBS film Growing Greener Schools on Earth Day 2010.  And ECHS was a finalist in the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge to have President Obama give commencement address.



5. Windward School—LEED Makes Sense


When Windward School Head Tom Gilder and the Board of Trustees approved a new strategic plan in 2004, the word “sustainability” did not appear.  But over the last six years, the school engaged in a national search for best educational practices, and along the way they discovered a passion for environmental stewardship.  The resulting impact on the campus is demonstrable, especially in two, new LEED for Schools Gold certified buildings that opened in September 2009.


The story of how Windward, an independent school of 475 students on a nine acre campus in West Los Angeles, embraced environmental sustainability in the school’s Master Plan is one of administrative leadership from the Head and Technology Director Jim Bologna.  In the early 1980s Tom Gilder joined Windward School as a teacher, becoming head in 1987 after helping to opening the West Coast operation of Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.  Years later he recruited Jim Bologna from Milton Academy in Massachusetts, which itself had begun to green its boarding school campus.  Guided by the Strategic Plan of 2004-05, they were charged with designing two new buildings—the Center for Teaching and Learning and a Science, Dance and Music Center--that would add 40,000 square feet. 


In early 2008, with the construction project already underway, the administration formed the Sustainability Committee to examine the feasibility of incorporating environmental principles in the project.  Gilder and Bologna had been impressed with what other schools and colleges were doing in this field, and they visited dozens of colleges and secondary schools throughout the country to see these new approaches to sustainability in action.  They were particularly impressed with the process used by the Sidwell Friends School in Washington DC and they used it as a template.  Despite initial concerns about cost and timing from those involved in the project, they felt that the new LEED for Schools guidelines made the green initiative approach vital.  With a vision to “create the ideal school environment that embraced sustainability,” Gilder asked the committee, “what would it take to get this done.”  Systematically, they examined potential objections, especially concerns about higher costs, and “the concerns melted away,” said Gilder.  At the time, no schools had been certified in the new LEED for Schools program.  Being a pioneer with these newly issued criteria meant that the school was not able to learn from the experience of others in their efforts to resolve some the technical challenges raised by the new LEED for Schools guidelines.   Using a talented LEED consulting team, that included an acoustic engineer from the Bay Area who was able to solve intricate sound issues that stymied the school's original construction team, they were ultimately able to shift the thinking from “expense” to “investment” and demonstrate that the new buildings would generate significant financial savings while creating an ideal learning environment. Windward was the first schools in the Los Angeles area, and one of the first three schools in the state of California, to receive LEED for

Schools Gold certification.


Jim Bologna proudly showed me the product of their labors and explained that from his point of view, “sustainability is very important because we need to inspire our students to be aware of the environmental regardless of their career path.”  For him, the LEED for Schools standards “hold a mirror to the design and construction process.”  With the emphasis on a better educational environment for students, the importance of building LEED for Schools certified builds became “self-evident” for him and Gilder.


With the construction complete, Windward is looking to incorporate other elements of environmental sustainability in their program.  Alumna Samantha Lyons has just been hired to serve as facilitator of the Windward Garden and leads the school’s service learning program.  Fresh from her experience at Smith College working with environmental projects, she already has created a small school garden to incorporate in the school’s program.  Given the school’s inclination to benchmark best practices, they have made an important statement in building green, providing facilities that will likely further changes.  It is exciting to see Windward on the threshold of an even more wide-reaching engagement with sustainability.



6. Crossroads School—Sustainability Runs Deep


When I sat down to speak with Middle School Director Morgan Schwartz to talk about Crossroads School, he looked up and said, “Sustainability runs deep at the school.”  As the spring 2010 edition of the school magazine announced on its cover, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is a way of life at Crossroads.”  This impressive report describes a school community that has made a commitment to incorporating sustainability in every facet of its operation.


For Morgan Schwartz, the Crossroads mission from its founding as a K-12 school in 1971--“to instill a respect for the humanity and ecology of the earth”--established the principles for a long-term commitment to the environment.  Head of School Bob Riddle concurs and notes that at that time “few schools were willing to consider the notion that ecology was important…Crossroads was a leader in education by making environmental awareness an integral part of the program long before it became de rigueur in most other schools.”  As a result of this commitment, Crossroads is clearly engaged in a systemic approach to environmental sustainability, with efforts underway focused on the outdoor education program, curriculum, garden project, and student projects.


Morgan Schwartz chairs the school’s Green Committee that was started in 2008, an inclusive group that includes two-dozen volunteer members from the employees, students, parents and alums.  He himself brings a long-held passion for nature to his work.  Growing up in Los Angeles, he remembers “roaming the Hollywood Hills” before attending UC Berkeley, where he discovered the local, earthquake-faulted geology and decided to major in the field.  After working as a geologist, he was called to teaching and joined the Crossroads faculty where he has taught everything from AP Chemistry to Earth and Space Science.  He is especially proud of the positive change the Green Committee has directed, from an initiative to eliminate plastic bottles from campus spearheaded by the Students for Environmental Action (SEA) Club to the Parents Association efforts to reduce waste and buy green.


A hallmark of the Crossroads environmental curriculum is the Environmental and Outdoor Education (EOE) program.  Started in the school’s early years, EOE offers students in grades 4 through 12 nearly two dozen overnight and day trip opportunities to discover the natural beauty of Southern California, rock climbing, hiking, camping, white water rafting, or learning landscape painting in the Owens River Valley with Fine Arts Department Chair Pam Posey.  Staffed by a team of three instructors, the program enlists the leadership of faculty members and is one of the longest-running environmental education programs among California independent schools.  The environmental consciousness developed among Crossroads students was surely evident when I met Anna Cummins ’91 later in the week and heard about the impressive work she is doing to expose the problem of plastics in our seas through the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. 


The Crossroads campus itself symbolizes the school’s commitment to sustainability.  Campus composting, a small garden on raised beds, and an outdoor café all contribute to the community ethos of greening the school.  Located almost entirely in renovated warehouses, the school’s “recycled” buildings, once thought to be less impressive that a gleaming new campus, now demonstrate how a vital community can be built in environmentally responsible ways.  While Morgan Schwartz identifies a concern voiced by many educators—“do kids actually know they are being taught about ‘sustainability’?”—it seems clear that at Crossroads the message is getting through and inspiring students to make a difference.





7. Turning Point School—A Re-Purposed Campus


For Deborah Richman, Head of School for twenty-three years at Turning Point, a Pre-K through 8 independent school of 400 students in Culver City, the school’s entire history has been devoted to becoming more sustainable.  Founded in 1970, the school shared a site with a temple near the Getty Museum, but in the 1990s it became apparent they needed to find a permanent location.  When her board set to move the school from the affluent, residential community of BelAir, she hoped they would “find me a green place.”  Having been raised in a small town in Texas, she grew up riding horses and enjoying the freedom of the natural world and has brought that progressive vision and appreciation for nature to her school.


The move to Culver City was a turning point for the school in many ways.   In 2001 a team of Richman, Facilities and Business Manager Chris Sabihon, and Board members acquired and renovated the former See’s Candy Warehouse into a new school site.  More recently the school completed the renovation of an adjacent steel manufacturing company and incorporated green practices in the new facility including natural and artificial turfed landscape that provided the “green” that Richman was seeking.  While the building does not carry a specific certification as a green structure, careful attention was given to efficient energy use and construction.  Located at the western edge of Los Angeles, the school is soon to be connected by a light rail station literally across the street to downtown to the east and Santa Monica to the west.  Importantly, repositioning Turning Point led to a significant increase in racial and ethnic diversity, now 37% and vital to the school’s vision of community education.


In two programmatic initiatives--environmental education and community service learning—the school has incorporated sustainability in the curriculum.  Early in the school’s history faculty member Bruce Flint brought an environmental ethos to the school, by starting one of the area’s first recycling programs, working with the Tree People, an LA non-profit that promotes urban reforestation, and conducting field studies with students at the Ballona Wetlands area. Building on this foundation, Robin Gose, who is co-coordinator of the school’s Green Team, offers a science education program for elementary students in grades 2-5 and middle school grade 7.  The day I visited her lab, students entered the class eagerly asking, “do we get to do dissections today?!” 


Turning Point offers a unique program for seventh graders called the International Collaborative on Sustainability.  Throughout the year the students take a separate environmental biology class.  This course dovetails with an association of schools in Australia, Oregon and Scotland, gathers data on school operations and asks teams of students to analyze the information and make recommendations for improvements. Annually, a delegation of 8 students from each school meets at a member school to evaluate progress, giving them a real-world, problem solving experience.  Spearheading this project, faculty member Mimi Ryan serves as coordinator of the service learning and global education programs through which she seeks to “nurture the human spirit” and to which she brings significant cross-cultural perspective having lived taught in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Spain. 


Turning Point is making important strides in becoming a more environmentally sustainable school, one that provides a learning environment to help students develop an ethic of service and global understanding.




8. Besant Hill School—Leadership Through Partnership


Over the last five years Besant Hill School Head Paul Amadio and Sustainability Director Tod Cossairt have teamed up with the Board of Trustees and faculty to transform their school.  Founded as the Happy Valley School in 1946, the school changed its name to Besant Hill 2008 in honor of one its founders and out of reverence for the stunningly beautiful campus for 100 high school students situated on 500 acres in the Upper Ojai Valley at the base of the Los Padres National Forest.  They cite the mission to develop in students “an appreciation for nature with respect, compassion and responsibility in all forms of life” as their guiding principle in changing the school.  Responding to the encouragement of the United Nations and the National Association of Independent Schools, they have set out to play a leadership role in the environmental education movement. 


Sustainability Director Tod Cossairt is completely dedicated to this goal.  Raised in Los Angeles, he attended Sonoma State University and was a craftsman before returning to school to study science and ecology.  Arriving at Besant Hill in 1998, he taught science and served as Dean of Students before the school created his new position in which he directs the integrated sustainability initiatives, while teaching introductory environmental science, AP Environmental Science, and an Advanced Environmental Seminar.  With the arrival of Paul Amadio in 2006 he found a kindred spirit.  Amadio himself took a creative path to school leadership.  After years as a stage actor, he turned his attention to offering drama instruction for inner-city youth in Detroit and Chicago and then worked in several New England boarding schools.  When he joined Besant Hill, he and Cossairt set out to craft vision for environmental education.


The Besant Hill Sustainability Plan of 2009 declares that “sustainability education is the active cultivation of a community ethic… (dedicated) to preserving and enriching our natural, social and economic resources….”  The highly detailed plan focuses on five broad areas including energy and resources, the school curriculum, the school’s setting, community partnerships, and administrative support.  The most notable feature of the plan is the comprehensive audit of school practice and the specific recommendations for change across all areas of school operation.  As a result, Besant Hill has a very developed road map for change.


Besant Hill’s commitment to an environmental curriculum is evident in many ways.  All Grade 9 students take an introductory course in Environmental Science.  Students also can elect AP Environmental Science and an Advanced Environmental Seminar.   When I joined the class, students fanned out over the campus learning how to read the electric meters in order to measure energy use as part of the school’s participation in the Green Cup Challenge.  Students also participate in the Edible Besant Hill project and can work on the school’s five-acre fruit and vegetable farm adjacent to the main campus that is managed by Peter Wilsrud.


To fulfill the vision of environmental leadership, Cossairt has taken on responsibilities as Southern California regional coordinator for the Green Schools Alliance, a collaborative of over 250 independent schools nation-wide as well as the public schools in New York City.  I had the privilege to participate in this year’s conference that drew 100 students and faculty representing over a dozen schools from around the region and the state.  Memorable presentations included: “Synthetic Seas: Plastics in our Ocean” by Crossroads School alumna Anna Cummins; “Mimicking the Forest in a Megalopolis” by Mark Montygierd from the TreePeople in Los Angeles; and “Our Future Matters” by Alec Loorz, a sixteen year old junior in Ojai who heads Kids vs. Global Warming and is organizing the iMatter March this Mothers’ Day to mobilize local environmental action teams.  It was an honor as well to speak about the Greening of Head-Royce School and to report on Green Trends from my year-long study of environmental sustainability in K-12 education in nation (see for reports). 


My three day visit to Besant Hill School was inspiring.  Their community offers a dramatic example of how a leadership team can transform a school by elevating the mission of environmental sustainability. 


9. Thacher School—The Air We Breathe


When speaking about the sustainability program of Thacher, a co-ed boarding school for 215 students from 28 states and 10 countries, long-time Head of School Mike Mulligan observes that “a commitment to the environment is in the air we breathe.”  Founded over a hundred years ago on the western slope of the Los Padres National Forest, Thacher has long been known for two special offerings: the Horse Program and the Outdoor Program.  Today the school is building on that legacy to bring sustainability into the daily practice of the school.


Thacher’s mission places strong emphasis on character development and the school “continues to train young men and women in the art of living for their own greatest good and for the greatest good of their fellow citizens in the increasingly diverse society of a complex world.”  The school’s Horse Program requires that all freshmen care for and learn to ride a horse, which gives them a connection to and understanding of the natural world, a program that is unique among college preparatory schools.  As the school’s founder put it:  “there’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a boy.” 
Taking advantage of a stunning setting looking up at the rugged, stark peaks of the Los Padres National Forest, Thacher also runs a comprehensive Outdoor Program that takes advantage of the natural beauty of the campus and destinations further a field from the Sierra to Joshua Tree National Park.


History faculty member Toby Elmore has been charged with helping facilitate the effort to enhance the environmental sustainability program as advisor to the school’s Environmental Action Committee (EAC), which this year is chaired by junior Joe Bell.  As a faculty-student leadership team they bring focus and commitment to their work.  Elmore credits his years as a high school student at Western Reserve Academy for heightening his love of nature, a feeling that deeply quickened when he joined the Thacher faculty seven years ago, where he now teaches a full load of history classes with a global perspective, coaches, and advises the school’s diversity committee.  Bell comes from Gloucester, Massachusetts and grew up with the legacy of his community’s three hundred year, intimate relationship with the sea.  Using the committee as the organizing body, the two have apportioned responsibility to subcommittees for composting, a bio-diesel project, a new school garden, and the school’s annual participation in the Green Cup Challenge.  This approach allows them to focus on a single issue they are researching: how to reduce significantly water use on the school’s 500-acre campus.  Since the school already has its own wastewater treatment center, this initiative is designed to educate the community about the challenges of living in an arid community and to make further modifications to the plant, like low flow showers and toilets. 


The school is incorporating sustainability through its new strategic plan.  One of the five priorities includes environmental sustainability, and Elmore and others have been to several East Coast schools to study best practices as they formulate recommendation for the Board.  An earlier effort to install a very large solar array in 2008 was placed on hold because seismic requirements made the cost prohibitively high, but Thacher has not given up on a plan to incorporate renewable energy.  The school’s recently constructed new buildings included many green features and the school sources food for the cafeteria from local growers.   With the advent of a new strategic plan, Thacher has an opportunity to institutionalize its commitment to environmental sustainability.


10. Cate School—A Tradition of Sustainability


For Head of School Ben Williams and Business Manager Sandi Pierce the quest over the last decade to make Cate School more environmentally sustainable was not a new direction.  The significant progress made in all areas of school sustainability—the campus, curriculum and food program—flowed naturally from the vision of the school’s founder, Curtis Wolsey Cate, and who had a “deep respect—a reverence—for the natural world, and stewardship of the environmental and natural resources was one of the basic tenets of his educational philosophy.” (“A Sustainable Cate”, School Website)  Rather than creating a new, green mission statement and organizing a separate environmental committee, they urged their colleagues to be true to the school’s vision and mission in transforming this boarding school of 265 students on 500 acres overlooking Carpentaria and the Pacific Ocean.


When touring the campus it is quickly evident that the school has made systemic changes to develop a more environmentally sustainable school infrastructure and operations.  Williams and Pierce point to many choices the school has made that are more sustainable and money saving.  Consider the long and very impressive list of new and renovated buildings that are green: LEED Platinum faculty housing, LEED Gold child care facility, a wastewater treatment plant that saves $70,000 a year for irrigation, a new LEED certified aquatic center with a microturbine that feeds power back to the school’s grid saving $40,000 annually, relocation and renovation of the original stables, a new parking lot with special surfacing to capture vehicle oil, bioswales, and retaining walls built from handsome local stone. Sandi Pierce has made sure that all operations decisions are screened through an environmental lens, which means low or no VOC paints, using recycled materials in building renovations, CF lights, low flow showerheads, low flush toilets, a full recycling program, and the like.


The Food Program run by Executive Chef Tim Fox has joined the  “slow food” movement, incorporating locally grown, organic food into the daily offerings for the community.  For Fox “food is a educational medium,” and he enjoys working with students to explain healthy choices.  He is also proud of the school’s leadership in helping to align with the local Farmers Markets in a partnership for the region.   With Sandi Pierce, who previously worked in food service, he has encouraged a composting program and the incorporation of green cleaning products where possible.  As he declares, “good food is a way of life!”


The Cate sustainability tradition also accounts for significant change in the curricular program.   Long-time Cate science teacher Cheryl Powers notes that ecological topics were incorporated in the biology and chemistry courses beginning in the 1980s, and the AP Environmental Science course she pioneered in 2000 is now taken by approximately half the students before graduation.  She has passed the baton to Joshua Caditz, a self-described “recovering attorney” who previously worked for the EPA, and it was fascinating to observe his students conducting a lab analyzing “leaf litter” from campus to help determine soil health, a real-world, place-based problem for them to solve.  Lending his experience to the overall curricular vision, Jim Masker teaches astronomy and supports student participation in green conferences.    His students described their passion for environmental work.  Senior Julia Paley heads the Environmental Club and leads students in several projects including dorm energy monitoring, beach clean up days, and nature trail restorations; as she said about environmental education, “This is our future.”  Junior Jacob Winnikoff heads the Blue Planet Outreach Project in which Cate students teach environmental classes in underserved schools in Santa Barbara, as well as the Carpentaria Stream Team that engages in monitoring the chemical and nutrients in the Santa Barbara Channel.


School Head Ben Williams is justifiably proud of Cate’s environmental consciousness, and modest about his own contributions.  Raised in eastern boarding schools where his father was a headmaster, he gained a reverence for nature early in life.  Following Cate’s founder by 100 years, he has deepened the school’s commitment to environmental sustainability in demonstrable ways.  Cate School has clearly thought deeply and systemically about how to create a healthy, green school.