www.greenschools.net, February 15, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: As we noted in Precaution Reporter #27, the Emeryville, California, School District has adopted a far-reaching policy to apply precaution throughout the school system. Emeryville's policies were based on an earlier report called The Little Green School House, by Josh Karliner. Your school district could take precautionary action, too.]

By Josh Karliner

One in five people who live in this country -- 55 million children, teachers, administrators, nurses and janitors -- spend their days in K-12 schools. Yet, our current school systems are threats to our children's health, models of unsustainability, and significant contributors to society's broader environmental and health problems.

Schools can provide a healthy environment for students and staff, while promoting ecological sustainability, by using alternatives to toxic chemicals, pursuing green building and maintenance practices, changing their resource consumption patterns, serving nutritious food, and teaching students to be stewards of their communities, the earth and its resources.

In this report we invite you to imagine this "green" reality. We have written it as an encouragement for all of us who interact with schools in our personal and professional lives. It aims to develop a positive vision of individual schools, districts, state wide educational efforts and a nation wide US school system that is healthy and sustainable.

This report expresses a positive vision for healthy, sustainable schools

Specifically, We Aim To:

** Provide a reality check, zeroing in on just how unhealthy and unsustainable our current educational institutions are.

** Present a basis for hope and optimism, drawn from the fabulous mosaic of possibility represented by the thousands of disparate efforts around the country geared toward creating green and healthy schools.

** Provide a blueprint for parents, educators, students, environmental and health advocates, school board members, and interested community members to collaborate on implementing this vision.

Building Blocks For The Little Green Schoolhouse

To help build the vision and organize the wonderful -- yet often disconnected -- efforts to create green and healthy schools, we present the metaphorical "Little Green Schoolhouse" as a framework.

The cornerstone or foundation of the building is the Precautionary Principle -- the basis of decision-making. Flowing from this foundation, there are four pillars that we can use to transform our schools to healthy, sustainable, dynamic learning centers:

1. Strive for a toxics-free environment

2. Use resources sustainably

3. Create a green and healthy space

4. Teach, learn, engage!

The Foundation: The Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle promotes policies and decision-making based on the concept of "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

Rather than waiting for crises to occur, a proactive approach to addressing the issues of children's environmental health and the ecological impacts of schools can be based on the Precautionary Principle. Such an approach would:

** Take anticipatory action to prevent harm;

** Place the burden of proof on the proponent of a potentially harmful activity;

** Examine a full range of alternatives;

** Provide relevant communities with the right to know about potential harm; and

** Consider all the reasonably foreseeable costs of an activity.

A growing number of cities, including San Francisco, have adopted the Precautionary Principle as guidance for a range of decisions to promote environmental health and safety, to reduce costs, and to promote sustainability in government practices, including switching to non-toxic cleaners and environmentally sound purchasing.

The Los Angeles Unified School District adopted the Precautionary Principle as the foundation for its decision to provide the safest, least toxic approach to pest problems after children exposed to chemical herbicides suffered serious asthma attacks.

Pillar 1: Strive To Be Toxics Free

Children are one of our most vulnerable populations when exposed to toxic chemicals. Yet they are regularly exposed at school through the application of pesticides and powerful cleaning agents, poor building design and maintenance, lead paint contamination, and poor ventilation.

One-half of our nation's 115,000 schools have problems linked to indoor air quality. This can result in "sick building syndrome," increased absenteeism, and overall negative impacts on a child's ability to develop and learn.

Of the 48 pesticides most commonly used in schools, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies 22 as possible or probable carcinogens.

Many schools -- especially in poor districts -- are sited on or near toxic waste dumps, environmentally hazardous facilities, and other sources of pollution. In many places school districts have no environmental guidelines for school siting.

There are a growing number of efforts on the local, state and national levels to address this range of issues and to make our schools healthier places to attend and work in. Several organizations have succeeded in winning new funds and implementing new policies that, for instance, require schools to use "green" cleaning products, or adopt Integrated Pest Management guidelines.

Pillar 2: Use Resources Sustainably

Schools spend a lot of money to heat and light buildings and to purchase supplies. They can improve children's health, protect the environment and strengthen their financial situation by implementing alternative energy, construction and procurement policies.

Schools' energy use makes them significant contributors to air pollution, global warming, and U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Our K-12 schools' electricity consumption alone is equivalent to 42 days of U.S. imports of Saudi Arabian oil.

Taxpayers spend $6 billion a year on energy for schools but could reduce that amount by $1.5 billion through energy efficiency measures alone.

Many schools could become independent power producers by investing in clean renewable technologies such as solar and wind.

A growing number of districts are following "Healthy, High Performance School Guidelines" when building or renovating. These criteria recommend environmentally sound building materials, and the efficient use of energy and water. Benefits include a healthier learning and working environment for children and teachers, higher test scores, improved attendance, reduced operating costs, and reduced environmental impacts.

Schools are far behind many other sectors of society in recycling. Waste from schools -- primarily food and paper -- represents about 4 percent of the municipal waste stream. Many schools do not recycle and fewer still purchase recycled or "green" products.

For each ton of non-recycled office paper that a school district replaces with 30 percent post-consumer content, it uses 2,400 pounds less wood (about 7 trees), thereby helping save critical forest ecosystems.

As more schools purchase clean energy and recycled supplies, they can build demand, making these "green" products more economically competitive.

Pillar 3: Create A Green and Healthy Space

There is an alarming increase in diet-related disease among school-age children, connected, at least in part, to the quality of meals eaten at school.

The overwhelming majority of schools allow soft drinks and junk food to be sold on campus. The health costs of allowing junk food, fast food, and soda vending machines at school far outweigh any financial benefits these commercial entities provide.

Many districts and state governments have moved, or are moving, to ban junk food, fast food and soda from public schools.

Schools can produce healthy lunches in collaboration with local or regional small farmers via farm-to-school programs, which are expanding across the country. These programs also allow children to learn about nutrition and food systems.

Thousands of school garden and green schoolyard programs are thriving across the country. Teachers successfully teach to math, science and social studies standards, while inculcating nutrition and environmental stewardship concepts in these gardens.

Pillar 4: Teach, Learn, Engage!

Environmental education should be a central element in any child's education, helping children to understand and appreciate the natural world around them and to foster critical thinking and environmental stewardship.

Overall, almost two-thirds of all elementary and secondary teachers include environment in their curriculum. Yet the subject often remains isolated, with neither state nor federal government agencies putting sufficient resources into environmental education or teacher training.

There is a tremendous opportunity -- a grand teachable moment -- for children to learn about ecological sustainability, environmental health, nutrition, personal responsibility, and leadership through their hands-on participation in making their own schools healthier, more efficient, sustainable, and pleasant centers for learning.

Schools can implement hands-on, place-based curricula that will teach children how to audit, evaluate, and change their own school environments for the better.


This report provides a series of policy recommendations and actions for students, parents, teachers, school administrators, and school board members, as well as for local, state and federal government officials.

The report illustrates successful examples and points to key organizations that provide detailed recommendations and specific avenues for action at all levels.

The report calls for stakeholders to organize to convince local school boards to pass Healthy and Sustainable Schools Resolutions. Such resolutions can identify a series of specific goals and objectives for school districts to pursue through the implementation of a concrete action plan. (See sample resolution.)

Overall, this vision of building green and healthy schools, while teaching engaged children rooted in their communities, may be a far cry from today's reality. But we should not view it as impossible, and we should not let such reality get in the way of making a better world. Rather, building "The Little Green Schoolhouse" is a challenge to be met.

Read the Report.