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Going Green

Strategies for creating eco-friendly and sustainable schools.

by Lisa van de Geyn
illustration: mariane gondim

A bird hovering around a tree and a frog on a lily pad

The staff and students at the school where Lisa Jeffery, OCT, teaches have been eco-friendly focused for 14 years, but their EcoTeam wasn't truly engaged outside of Leamington District Secondary School until six years ago.

Back in the summer of 2014, locals were told a massive harmful algae bloom appeared in nearby Lake Erie. The damage was widespread and far-reaching: Leamington, Ont., residents were advised not to swim in the lake; Pelee Island businesses suffered because tourists stayed away; and neighbours southwest in Toledo, Ohio, didn't have access to safe drinking water. The environmentally conscious folks at Leamington District had a plan of action.

"The EcoTeam decided to put all their energy into learning about the issue, educating our community about it and working with stakeholders to try to reduce the high phosphorus levels that were contributing to the problem," says Jeffery, who teaches Grade 11 and 12 university preparation biology. "They called their mission, 'Algaecation,' and it really made an impact. In May 2015, we held a Harmful Algal Bloom Summit to bring together citizens, scientists, First Nations leaders, industry representatives, all levels of government, and students in Grades 5 and 12. We learned from one another and worked collaboratively to develop solutions. We received media coverage, and our EcoTeam was asked by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to provide input on strategies to reduce phosphorus levels in Lake Erie."

Since that time, says Jeffery, Canada has committed to reducing phosphorus levels by 40 per cent, and the EcoTeam found a successful formula to effect change through their school group. "They learn about an environmental issue from experts, develop and deliver educational programs for students and adults, then engage stakeholders to develop solutions. We've since used this formula for other causes, including wetland conservation, pollinator protection, food waste, invasive species, plant-based eating and climate action," Jeffery says. She also credits the Essex Region Conservation Authority as a valuable resource, support and collaborator when implementing solutions to environmental issues.

The truth is there's no shortage of environmental causes to bring attention to. There's also no shortage of Ontario Certified Teachers (OCTs) leading the fight to save our planet. And it's not just high school science teachers who are keen on being green — staff across the province, teaching kindergarten to Grade 12, are actively participating in programs aimed at reducing our collective carbon footprint.

"Our take at my school is that all of us — staff, students and parents — have an impact on the planet every single day, and that our daily habits around energy, water, food, green spaces, wildlife, etc., all matter," says Cathy Dykstra, OCT, a Grade 5 teacher at Kortright Hills Public School in Guelph, Ont. "Helping kids understand why positive daily habits matter is a priority of our school."

It's also a priority for Jeffery, who reminds her students that just 15 years ago, she didn't think she'd be alive to see some of the most dire impacts of climate change. "And yet, we're seeing melting permafrost, coral bleaching, regular wildfires, droughts, floods and climate refugees in 2020, with Canada warming about twice as fast as the rest of the world."

Not only is it necessary to teach kids to be environmentally responsible citizens, eco-friendly schools have many immediate benefits. Green school grounds, for instance, have been shown to make a positive impact on students' learning, their physical activity and mental health, and it can even reduce symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. A 2018 study that looked at more than 300 elementary schools from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) found the more trees children were around, the better — tree cover can have an impact on students' academic performance.

The advantages of caring for the environment rings true to Martine Bazinet, OCT, the pre-K–6 science teacher at École élémentaire publique De la Rivière Castor in Embrun, Ont., who lauds her board (Conseil des ècoles publiques de l'Est de l'Ontario), saying it was ahead of its time when it comes to making eco-friendly schools a priority. "I have a chance to teach young kids to take care of the environment by taking simple actions that have great results. These students are not too young — they can do something as simple as picking up garbage or avoiding using single-use plastic to help out," she says. "With everything going on in our environment, we have to do our part. I'm here to help them learn how to do their part."

Every teacher Professionally Speaking spoke with who leads the eco-friendly teams and projects in their respective school agreed there are simple, tangible ways to up the green quotient in every elementary and secondary school across Ontario. Here's their advice.

Join EcoSchools Canada

It started as a provincial program back in 2002, when the TDSB developed Ontario EcoSchools. At the time, there was a provincial certification schools could receive if they were successful in making their school eco-friendly. In 2017, Ontario EcoSchools incorporated as EcoSchools Canada, and the bilingual organization expanded its certification program to schools across the country.

Jeffery touts the program for its user-friendly format and supportive staff. "It also keeps us on track. We're involved in so many community projects, but the certification process reminds us to pay attention to in-school issues like turning lights off and reducing food waste," she says, adding her school has been certified at the platinum level for the last four years; its EcoTeam is 14 years old and has more than 50 active team members. "Some students attend our weekly meetings to learn about local and global environmental issues from our own members or from local experts. Others like to dive into the data and conduct energy and waste audits, report their results and develop action plans to reduce our impact. We also have our outdoor enthusiasts, who always show up for community beach clean-ups, tree planting, habitat restoration and amphibian monitoring," she says.

Make it part of your school culture

"When new teachers come to our school, they say they notice the many systems we have put in place to encourage environmental learning and sustainable practices," says Jeffery. That's because she and her teachers ensure eco-projects figure prominently when it comes to school activities.

The same is true for Ontario Certified Teacher Michael Michaud's gold-certified school, Seneca Trail Public School in Oshawa, Ont. — they've made their pollinator garden an integral part of the whole school experience. "We've worked very hard to establish our pollinator garden as the central focus of our eco-efforts. The creation of this garden has had a huge impact on our staff, students and the community," he says. "It's used as an outdoor classroom to learn about ecosystems and understand the importance of planting indigenous species of plants. It's also a place of honour where we have planted two trees in memory of two former teachers who recently passed."

Let students take the lead

Eco-leaders shouldn't just be teachers and staff — students have an innate curiosity, and this is a prime way to get them engaged. In Jeffery's high school, the EcoTeam makes decisions democratically. "That means sometimes we proceed with a plan that wasn't mine, and that's OK. Students assume major responsibilities like educating adults and challenging community leaders to employ science-based environmental decision-making," she says.

"We have also elected our own Minister of the Environment on student parliament to ensure environmental responsibility is reflected in student events. And students helm a variety of roles; for example, the publicity manager handles most media interviews, helps with social media posts and sometimes contributes articles about environmental issues to our local newspaper." Dykstra says the program at her elementary school is run by students from Grades 3 to 8, as well as a Grade 5 class, who learn the majority of their subjects "through an eco-lens."

The groups focus on empowering students and strengthening passion in the environment. "Our eco-leaders fulfil most of the requirements of being a gold-certified EcoSchool. They monitor the recycling, classroom lighting and technology habits across the school, make morning announcements, create posters for the hallways and lead school assemblies," she says, adding they organize events and have spoken in the community at events such as the Pollination Guelph Symposium.

Partner with and engage the community

The compostable waste program at Michaud's school allows students and staff to leave their compostable waste (from snacks and lunch) at school. "Our community neighbours then allow us to leave the green bins out on their curb on the day of pickup. We have calculated that we're diverting approximately 30 kilograms of waste from our landfill each week," he says.

Make it fun

It's an obvious one, yes, but there's fun to be had when it comes to saving our planet. Kindergarten teacher Jacqueline Floh-Hilts, OCT, at Toronto's gold-certified Churchill Public School, has an alter ego — she's ECO Girl. "I dress up during assemblies to help motivate the school to be eco-friendly. ECO Girl started off as a Halloween costume but has transformed into something the whole school loves," she says. "When ECO Girl comes in, she tells the students about our eco-initiatives When they ask if I'm her, I deny it."

Melissa Binfield, OCT, a teacher at St. John Catholic Elementary School in Beamsville, Ont., uses her school's surroundings (the Niagara Peninsula) to create fun projects for students. "When I taught kindergarten, my students would ask about the wild grapes that grew along the fence in our play area. This prompted me to tell them where our food comes from. A local greenhouse offered to donate some pots, plants and soil," she says. "So, we planted the vegetables and took care of them in our kindergarten enclosure. The children watched them grow and later helped harvest. This project has inspired many children in our school to ask their parents about making their own vegetable gardens."

Be a role model

Karen Stelling, OCT, has been a lifelong environmental advocate and was involved in her high school's eco-club, so it doesn't come as a surprise that the Grade 10 and 12 science and chemistry teacher at platinum-certified Riverdale Collegiate Institute in Toronto practises what she preaches in her own classrooms. "I take my students outside as much as I can," she says. "I also go paperless as much as possible and think through to the 'end' of a 'product.'" For example, she says, if students are making cell models out of Plasticine, that's going to end up in the landfill.

"Using stuff that is already waste, or biodegradable products, is important. I also have a rule that you can't purchase anything that you use to make something for class. It's also important to teach everyone that this is not a problem somebody else is going to fix for them."