Growing an Army of Green Schools for Good

By Tom Vander Ark and Victoria Bergsagel

This post originally ran in Green Schools Catalyst Quarterly

Denpasar is a dense urban area on the south coast of Bali, where most of the four million inhabitants live on the 90-mile long Indonesian island. If you hop on a scooter and head north toward the mountains, about halfway to Ubud (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) and a kilometer off a narrow main street in the small village of Sibang Kaja, you will find Green School Bali (featured picture), a nonprofit independent international preK-12 school whose goal is to be the best model of sustainability education in the world.

Following a 2006 exit from the jewelry business, John and Cynthia Hardy conceived of a new kind of school. The Green School opened in 2008 with three rules: be local; let your environment be your guide; and envisage how your actions will affect your grandchildren. The holistic, open air, learner-centered school serves about 400 “green leaders” in preschool through high school.

The Green School may be the best model of sustainability education in the world, but this frequently visited off-the-grid bamboo school that relies on solar and hydro power is just one of ten examples of green schools growing green kids – young people with ecological awareness and design thinking skills.

Going Green

As new school administrators in the 1990s, we worked together in a fairly traditional Western Washington State school district. After five years, Tom left the district to help launch the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Victoria left for a brain research institute. Both of us had an opportunity to begin visiting hundreds of schools and studying brain-focused design, and we have worked together to support the development of over 1,000 new high schools in the last decade.

It was not really until the last decade or so that we came to more fully appreciate the importance of green schools. We had always followed the research and believed in the importance of good light, sound, and air quality, but it was the students themselves who took us to the next level.

We have visited thousands of schools, but the ten we highlight in this article (all visited recently) stand out on three criteria – energy efficient buildings, healthy environments and experiences that prepare students to take up stewardship of the planet.

California Dreamin’

The High Tech High campus in San Diego (@HighTechHigh) might be one of the most famous and visited secondary schools in the world. Housed in refurbished Navy buildings, High Tech High and its feeder elementary and middle schools use the city as the text for learning. Students throughout the network are involved in environmental education including students at Explorer Elementary, who publish books about local wildlife.

If you hop in your hard-to-find electric convertible and head north on I-15 you will soon be in San Diego in Poway Unified School District. The newest (and 39th) school in the district is Design39Campus (@Design39campus), an innovative preK-8 human-centered, design-focused elementary school. On a recent visit, we witnessed a multi-age classroom where students were addressing a big guiding question: “How might we define ourselves in the world in which we live?” Students in the LEED-certified building learn in a variety of large flexible spaces all filled with natural light and many with mountain vistas.

After an ocean-view lunch in Santa Monica, you can take a leisurely drive through scenic Malibu Canyon where you could visit the MUSE School (@MUSESchoolCA), a private southern California K-12 school where students participate in a rich seed-to-table program and take part in outdoor education.

In fact, the Green Restaurant Association named the MUSE school kitchen the greenest restaurant in the world. Their elementary campus is zero energy, near-zero waste, and boasts of solar sunflowers designed by movie director James Cameron. These operate with a tracking technology that allows each panel to move throughout the day and follow the course of the sun, thus harvesting more energy than traditional static panels.

Capital Ideas

Between the National Cathedral and American University in northwest Washington, D.C, is Horace Mann Elementary (@HoraceMannDC), a remarkable student-centered and personalized learning environment that serves a diverse student body in multiple-use spaces promoting efficiency and connection.  Students explore their local watersheds and the gardens on the grounds and roof support a teaching kitchen. A recent red brick addition complements a century old colonial building. The renovation and addition are the best example we have seen of shared values infused into both pedagogy and facility.

Five miles west, in Arlington, Virginia, is Discovery Elementary (@DiscoveryAPS), the largest net zero elementary school in the country. A 98,000-square foot building integrated into a residential community, the school’s entire solar array resides on its roof. With the goal of helping students develop the skills necessary for long-term stewardship of their world, a building dashboard system is accessible on any device in the school.

Place-Based Education

“A little bridge crossing a stream with a pool at the back of it and a willow hanging over the pool; that place would be said to have genius loci,” explained David Whyte. “But a more sophisticated understanding would [be that] it’s this weather front of all of these qualities that meet in that place. So I think it’s a very merciful thing to think of human beings in the same way — that is, your genius is just the way everything has met in you.”

Place-based education (PBE) is an approach to learning that takes advantage of geography to create authentic, meaningful, and engaging personalized learning for students.  More specifically, PBE is defined as an immersive learning experience that “places students in local heritage, cultures, landscapes, opportunities and experiences, and uses these as a foundation for the study of language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, and other subjects across the curriculum.”

The faculty of the Teton Science Schools in Jackson Hole, Wyoming (@TetonScience), are the spiritual gurus of the place-based movement. The 50-year-old nonprofit organization runs seven programs on five campuses, from preschool to graduate school. The five components of their approach include connection and relevance, partnerships and permeability, inquiry and design, student-centered, and interdisciplinary.

place-based education Teton Science SchoolNate McClennen, Vice President for Education and Innovation, said, “Instead of asking students to wait for twenty years to really understand the ‘why’ behind school, students should spend twenty years as integral and participatory members of learning communities. Imagine a world with place-based education for every child–connecting learning locally, regionally, and ultimately, globally. With multiple opportunities to interact with professionals, design solutions to real challenges, and skills to understand the world through multiple lenses, these students are the citizens the world needs for tomorrow.”

One of the best examples of leveraging community assets is Tacoma’s Science and Math Institute (SAMI) located within the second-largest city park in the nation (702 acres) which includes the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, rose gardens, an extensive tidal shoreline, old growth forest, and lots of trails. SAMI offers a robust environmental education program.  Students spend much of their school day out-of-doors doing field research and conduct internships in the zoo.  This fall, they will move into and share a new school building with the zoo and aquarium.

An hour north in Seattle is the Bertchi School. The private elementary school’s urban campus has a green Living Science Building, co-designed with students and staff, with an indoor river, bamboo fountain, and greenhouse. It was one of the first projects in the world to pursue the Living Building Challenge v2.0 criteria and the first to achieve it. From solar power to water collection to waste treatment, all sustainable features are visible for students to learn ecological concepts valuable for future generations.

A half hour ferry ride across the Puget Sound is IslandWood (@IslandWood) on Bainbridge Island, Washington. The 250-acre outdoor learning laboratory “invites children and adults to discover a new way of seeing nature, themselves, and one another.” IslandWood graduate programs teach place-based education practices.

10 Trends Making Schools Greener

Because we are committed to helping teacher teams invent the future of learning, we track trends in learning, the economy, and society as we visit schools around the world. When we put our trips and trends together, we see ten drivers making green schools and green kids more common.

1. LEED and the like. Since its inception by the U.S. Green Building Council in the mid-1990s, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program has evolved into a comprehensive system of interrelated standards ranging from design and construction to the maintenance and operation of buildings with 2.2 million square feet being certified every day.

Soon thereafter, several nonprofit organizations were formed with a similar mission and focused specifically on schools. The Collaborative for High-Performance Schools (CHPS), which was founded in 1999 as a collaboration of California’s major utilities to address energy efficiency, quickly expanded nationally to address all aspects of school design, construction, and operation. Several other states and municipalities also joined in. For instance, any state-funded school construction in Washington State now requires school districts to self-certify. (They can either incur the costs of pursuing LEED certification or use the Washington Sustainable Schools Protocol to self-certify.)

LEED-like certification is now a common design specification in education encouraging schools to be energy, water, and material efficient; well-lit; thermally comfortable; acoustically sound; safe; and healthy. The Architecture 2030 challenge is working toward all new buildings, developments, and major renovations across the globe being carbon-neutral by 2030. The International Well Building Institute, launched in 2014, provides a means by which buildings can be certified around seven concepts of health and well-being (air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind.) The U.S. Department of Education has also gotten into the act with its Green Ribbon Schools program. Its aim is to inspire schools to reduce environmental impact and costs; improve the health and wellness of schools, students, and staff; and provide environmental education.

2. Living Building Challenge. Launched in 2006 by the Cascadia Green Building Council (a chapter of both the U.S. Green Building Council and Canada Green Building Council), the Living Building Challenge is even more rigorous than LEED. Based on seven performance areas (place, water, energy, health and happiness, materials, equity, and beauty) certification is based on actual, rather than modeled or anticipated, performance. Administered by the International Living Future Institute, projects must be operational for at least 12 consecutive months prior to evaluation. Given the rigorous nature of the Living Building Challenge, only a few certified projects exist to date. Like LEED, the Challenge is creating aligned new building design and broader general public interest in the topic of green buildings.

3. Renewables. Solar and other renewable energy sources have become competitive with traditional sources and, as a result, are frequently incorporated into school building projects. Generated from natural resources—such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides, and geothermal heat—renewable energy technologies range from solar power, wind power, hydroelectricity/micro hydro, biomass, and biofuels for transportation.

4. Food. The advocacy and cooking of Alice Waters, Ann Cooper, and Jamie Oliver have changed the way America thinks about school lunch. Food is getting fresher, more local, and more nutritious. Kitchens and gardens are becoming classrooms.

We have seen great examples of hydroponic gardening in Santa Ana and in downtown San Diego at e3 Civic High. The MUSE School’s plant-based snack and lunch program makes it one of the only schools in the world to go vegan to save the planet.  Students are even asked to weigh their food waste to see the impact of their choices on the world.

FirstLine Schools leads Edible Schoolyard New Orleans, which serves thousands of students, their families, and school communities through nearly 4,000 joyful, hands-on kitchen and garden classes and special food and nutrition education events.

5. Project-based learning. Renewed interest in project-based learning is making schools greener because students take on real world challenges and often (as discussed in #7) take on local issues. Thousands of schools use the Buck Institute for Education’s Gold Standard to frame project-based learning. The 200 schools in the New Tech Network use integrated project-based learning to tackle real challenges with local connections. The Samueli Academy in Santa Ana engages diverse students in transformative learning on a spectacular campus.

Like Digital Promise, we advocate using the #GlobalGoals to frame projects. Growing out of the United Nations General Assembly’s Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, this campaign resulted in 17 Global Goals that provide a roadmap for a better future. Goals include zero hunger, affordable and clean energy, life on earth, life in the oceans, and sustainable cities.

6. Design, STEM, & Maker. Innovative new schools including One Stone in Boise, Design Tech High in the Bay Area, Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Development, and SPARK Schools in South Africa incorporate design thinking into every subject. These explorations invariably lead to questions of impact and sustainability.

Growing job demand in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) clusters make it a trending topic in schools. We identified a dozen STEM entry points and many point to sustainability and other trends on this list. For example, Harmony Public Schools is a blended STEM-focused network of schools in Texas. Upper division students engage in self-directed projects. Many are focused on the environment including hydroponics, solar cars, and weather balloons.

The maker movement is sweeping America—kids young and old are making stuff. “Maker activities do not inherently make schools greener, but have the potential to if done mindfully,” said Lindsey Own, maker coordinator at The Evergreen School (see her maker blog series). “Green maker is not only better for the environment, but also makes maker education more accessible by significantly lowering materials costs,” said Own.

Lindsey and her school community recycle and salvage materials. Families have already gotten in the habit of saving material for the makerspace and donate everything from corks, bottle caps, and plastic Easter eggs to someone’s collection of fabric samples or someone else’s unused stash of tubing. Students always manage to find uses for all of the materials, teaching recycling and design thinking. Own applies the same philosophy to new materials, pushing students to use every bit.

7. Place-based education. PBE encourages a sense of place. It is an approach to learning that incorporates relevant learning, community connections, design thinking, and integrated project-based learning. With renewed interest in project-based learning (#5), PBE is surging. The growth of microschools (also an early green trend) is advancing PBE and environmental education.

8. Competency-based education (CBE). With the rise of personalized learning (the dominant meme in U.S. education today), schools are increasingly managing student progress by demonstrations of mastery. National initiatives like LRNG recognize that learning, and demonstrations of learning, can take place anywhere, anytime. With encouragement from the federal government, some states will fuel this fire with portable funding, making it possible for students to learn with several different providers in several locations. CBE requires large, flexible spaces rather than grade-based classrooms, and schools that convert from large to small spaces at different times of the day.

9. Transportation. Artificial intelligence is creeping into many aspects of education. One of the most significant changes will be in more flexible and affordable student transportation powered by fleets of self-driving buses and vans—some dedicated, some on demand.  High schools will start later and teenagers will easily access work and community-based learning experiences.

Urban transportation hubs will frequently house green microschools which will make extensive use of affordable and safe travel-based learning.

School systems are increasingly making use of biofuel to move their buses and district vehicles. San Diego Unified utilizes reused cooking oil from area restaurants to fuel hundreds of its buses and teaches the use of this technology at San Diego High School of Science and Technology (Scitech).

10. Community facilities. Gary Comer College Prep is a high school on Chicago’s South Side that meets in two green buildings developed by the Comer Family Foundation. After school, one of the buildings converts into a Youth Center. The campus includes adjacent and rooftop gardens.

The sixth and seventh floor of the new downtown San Diego Library are devoted to e3 Civic High. The School of the Arts (SOTA) shares space in a variety of historic buildings throughout downtown Tacoma (and is the sister school to SAMI, discussed above).

Most big districts exhibit some version of a portfolio strategy with multiple operators. In a few cities, charters and districts collaborate on facilities. As the trends above mature, it is very likely that learning will happen in more community locations. In some places, education and community leaders will collaborate on facilities resulting in a super-efficient affiliation of community spaces used to support lifelong learning.

The combination of place-based (learning in community) and competency-based (anytime, anywhere demonstrated mastery) education, flexible autonomous transportation, and a portfolio of community facilities will make learning greener and more economical. Space requirements per pupil in dedicated school facilities will decline and utilization rates of green public spaces will rise.


It is natural for students to want to explore, protect, and improve the world around them. They learn best through authentic experiences and are motivated by opportunities to solve real-world problems. Green, healthy, and sustainable schools –especially those who make their values explicit—teach social responsibility and arm students for action.

The ten trends we have identified are preparing an army of ecologically-minded, design-focused, impact-oriented youth that may just fix the mess we have made.

For more, see:

This post is a part of Green Schools campaign. The climate crisis is the most complex challenge mankind has ever faced. It will require collaboration, shared truth and innovation at a scale that has yet to be realized. Through blogs, conversations and events we will focus on what to teach, how to teach it and how to create a climate positive school community so that our upcoming generations know what they are up against and have a shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities ahead. You can engage with this ongoing campaign using #GreenSchools. 

This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures please see our Partner page.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Suzie Boss

Thanks for these examples of inspiring spaces for learning. If your travels take you to NYC, be sure to visit another landmark in the Green Schools movement. Housed on the fourth-floor of a 100-year-old school building in the South Bronx, the Green Bronx Machine demonstrates how to create sustainable learning spaces on a lean budget (and with plenty of sweat equity). Students learn across the curriculum with an indoor farm, mobile classroom kitchen, a variety of other STEAM applications, and more, and their teachers learn alongside them thanks to embedded professional development. Stephen Ritz is the brains (and boundless energy) behind it all. His new book, The Power of a Plant, tells the back story of this remarkable program and shares a model for replication. (Full disclosure: I had the honor of co-authoring the book with Stephen.)

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