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Green Schools From Top to Bottom: Interview with Kim Armstrong Co-Executive Director for Washington Green Schools

KellyKirkland-webKimWashington Green Schools (WAGS) engages students and staff in K-12 schools throughout Washington State in recycling, saving energy, and other “green” actions. O'Brien & Company helped develop, pilot and launch the program under contract with the Clark County Solid Waste Division in 2008-2009. Kelly Kirkland of O'Brien & Company recently met with Kim Armstrong, WAGS Co-Executive Director,  to see how things are going.

Kelly: When we were launching the program we really wanted to make sure the program worked for schools and would be adopted. At the end of 2009 we had about 100 schools participating. How is participation now? Kim: We currently have 185 schools, representing nearly 95,000 students. Perhaps even more importantly, we have 63 school districts in 22 counties participating, so the program definitely has traction around the state. The higher the level of participation, the more new students are getting to know how school operations impact the environment, and how they can improve on that.

You mention nearly 95,000 students. How are teachers involved? Each school is required to have a green team that includes at least one teacher. We’ve also had hundreds of teachers participate in trainings that we've held around the state. Back on campus, sometimes the teachers are the main facilitator, but sometimes it’s a parent volunteer, school staff member, or the students themselves. Each green team gets to decide how their team will work together.

So it sounds like the program touches people at all levels in a school. Are you seeing improvements as a result? We are hearing from teachers that WA Green Schools gives context for students to get excited about learning math, science or writing a letter to the superintendent. Additionally, we are seeing real results through cost savings in a number of schools. For example, one school reported a reduction of $450/month in their energy bill. Another is saving almost $6000 by implementing a composting program that reduces their garbage pick-up from 5 to 3 days a week.

Wow, that's pretty significant news. Are you getting that kind of information from all the schools? Up to now, data like this not been systematically captured, but reported on a case by case basis from some of the schools as part of key findings. To remedy this, we've worked with a stakeholder group to come up with a new step in the process: "Verify and Reflect." Cost savings will be a metric common to most categories. For energy and water, data gathered will include consumption. For waste and recycling, data gathered will include generation and landfill diversion. We are still working on metrics for transportation and toxics, the two remaining environmental categories. Ultimately, we would like to aggregate data and add a carbon calculator to our website.

MapHave you found that the program really meets the needs of such a diverse age range of students? Definitely. We have all types of schools participating. Each green team tends to execute the program differently based on what’s appropriate for their students. One area where we have made some changes was originally called the “toxics” category. Few schools had chosen to pursue that category so we have created a new category called Healthy School Buildings, which has some elements of the previous toxics category.

It sounds like you continue to look for ways to improve the program. That's true. If you recall, something we heard even in the pilot stage, was the desire for alignment of the program with grade level standards and requirements. We recently received grant funding from WA STEM to align the waste and recycling activities with math standards for 4th grade math. This is a very exciting development.

Do you anticipate more alignments between subject areas in the program to grade level standards? Yes. We will continue to align with existing standards for the grade levels wherever we can. Besides the obvious educational benefit, this may be appealing for school districts that are not as interested in sustainability per se but interested in the experiential, hands-on nature of the activities associated with WA Green Schools. And it will make it easier for local advocates to get the attention of District decision makers.

What other improvements are you planning? Programmatically, we are considering a redesign of the certification program to include more rigor as schools move through the certification levels. Organizationally, we have a lot of work to do developing the Board and updating the strategic plan.

Any tips you'd like to share with other states trying to start similar programs? I would suggest taking the time to clearly define long term goals. Is education or resource conservation/operational efficiency the main goal? A program focused on resource-efficiency might put more emphasis on the measurement and verification of data. A program focused on engaging students might align with state learning requirements or offer a robust curriculum.. Then, develop a long term funding, strategic plan, and a program plan that enables you to meet the state’s educational structure. And, of course, use other state programs as a model and study best practices in learn from others! We benefited from looking at the Oregon Green Schools program  and the international Eco-Schools program.

In addition to leading WAGS, Kim Armstrong is the co-founder of Sound Footprint, a sustainability consulting firm serving schools and organizations in the Pacific Northwest. Kelly Kirkland, Project Associate, was on the original team at O'Brien & Company helping to develop and pilot the program.

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