Whole School Sustainability: A Framework for Organizational Change

By Hope Gribble & Carlton Poindexter, USGBC-Missouri Gateway Chapter

How can we create sustainable educational institutions? Schools across the country are trying to answer this question. Some are approaching this pursuit by incorporating sustainable practices into their physical environment – composting and recycling, rainwater collection, green cleaning, and lights-out campaigns. Others are integrating sustainability into their educational programs and curriculum. However, truly integrating effective sustainability into a school system requires more than implementing single programs and initiatives. Researchers at Colorado State University’s Institute for the Built Environment have found that schools successful in this endeavor have one major component in common: they are engaging sustainability from a whole-system perspective.

A whole-system approach requires individuals from across an organization to work together to integrate sustainability into a school’s long-term operational and educational practices. Organizational change (accepting a new vision for the organization, establishing new practices and policies, changing responsibilities and roles of members, etc.) is required, and can be challenging.

To provide guidance in this endeavor, the Center for Green Schools produced and published The Whole-School Sustainability Framework. This report, authored by researchers at the Institute for the Built Environment, identifies key principles of integrating sustainability into a school organization and is supported by literature and case studies from social science, business, education, and building sciences perspectives.
The framework is organized into three components: organizational culture, physical place, and educational program. Framework authors Stephanie Barr, Jennifer Cross, and Brian Dunbar define these as follows:

Organizational Culture
Organizational culture includes the shared values, social norms, and practices within an organization. Establishing sustainability programs and behaviors in a school requires aligning organizational culture with a vision for sustainability. To successfully integrate sustainability as a core component of organizational culture, it must align with the organization’s established mission, be supported by interdepartmental collaboration, and be communicated effectively.

Physical Place
A school’s physical place—including the built environment, surrounding natural environment, and the resources that flow through the school—provides both the context for an educational experience and a visible representation of school values. To best harness the power of physical place, it must be engaging and active, be progressively more efficient, and embody systems that enhance human, environmental, and economic health.

Educational Program
Connecting people, place, and purpose, a school’s educational program brings the vision and mission of a school to life. If the school’s vision for sustainability is aligned with its core education mission, then sustainability will be visible in the educational program through the leadership of staff, place-based connections, and the activities of students.
The 6th Annual Sustainability Institute for Educators, taking place June 21-23, 2016, will guide participants through the Whole-School Sustainability Framework and help them to apply the framework to their own organizations. The institute is designed for educators from all roles and environments; K-12 school administrators, curriculum and facilities directors, teachers and student leaders from public, independent, and non-formal learning environments are invited to attend.

More information about the Sustainability Institute for Educators is available at www.webster.edu/sie. The Whole-School Sustainability Framework is available for free download at www.centerforgreenschools.org/resources.