Universities Collaborate to “Green” Connecticut K12 Schools

Written by Ed Osborn

Spring is the time when leaves pop out, and inter-university collaboration is fueling this year’s crop of “spring greenery.” The “Connecticut Green LEAF Schools” project has provided a bridge that is linking a variety of stakeholders across the four Connecticut State Universities in the interest of greening our K-12 schools. The program started in 2011, with interest from four state offices, five universities, and many education and environmental groups. A representative steering committee created the Green LEAF program, which stands for “Leading, Educating, Achieving and Fostering” healthy green schools for all.  LEAF encourages, recognizes and celebrates the greening of Connecticut’s public and private K-12 schools.
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools program announced its first honorees.  The program’s goals are to teach about sustainability and the environment, to support the health and well-being of both students and staff, and to conserve resources used in our schools.

Connecticut tailored its program to echo those goals, recognizing schools that were already green and supporting and developing a sustainability ethic in all schools. Connecticut’s state universities have been active from the beginning of this process in leading and nurturing the Green LEAF cause.
Laurel Kohl, energy education specialist at Eastern Connecticut State University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, is co-chair of the initiative, along with Jeff Greig from the Connecticut State Department of Education. Suzanne Huminski of Southern Connecticut State University’s Office of Sustainability, and Charles Button of Central Connecticut State University’s Geography Department, are also active on the committee. Yale University and the University of Connecticut are likewise represented on the Green LEAF team.

Since its inception, Connecticut Green LEAF has enrolled 62 schools. Principals sign on with a letter of commitment, followed by the school’s green team completing a comprehensive self-assessment. When a school shows strength in all three of the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon goal areas, it may be eligible for national honors. To date five Connecticut schools have received national recognition. School districts can also seek recognition, as can colleges and universities, starting in 2015.

Schools are supported in growing greener through connections to programs offered by partners of Green LEAF. Connecticut’s Department of Public Health (DPH) is one of the founding partners. “Creating healthy school environments, improving nutrition and expanding exercise opportunities are important public health priorities and goals the Green LEAF Schools program strives to achieve,” said DPH Commissioner Jewel Mullen. “DPH is pleased to be a partner in this statewide collaborative initiative to encourage Connecticut schools to take a more holistic approach to ‘going green’ by linking health, the environment and education.”
Connecticut Departments of Education, Energy and Environmental Protection, and Administrative Services are also program partners. Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor shared his vision of why sustainability is a key element in today’s schools: “Green building standards and strategies create school environments which enhance students’ learning experience and teach them the importance of building a sustainable future.  Incorporating environmental and sustainable concepts into the curriculum have the potential to increase student engagement, especially in STEM fields.” More than 35 other educational or environmental organizations are also Green LEAF partners.

To assist participating schools in growing greener, the Green LEAF committee sought and was awarded a $166,000 grant for professional development through the Connecticut Office of Higher Education. Teacher Quality Partnership funding will support the summer 2014 Connecticut Green LEAF Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) Project. The Institute for Sustainable Energy at Eastern Connecticut State University will administer the project, which will utilize a broad collaboration of academic staff from Eastern, Central and Southern, (two Schools of Education, three of Arts and Sciences, and one of Manufacturing Sciences) along with a strong team of environmental educators from across the state. Fifty K-12 classroom teachers and administrators will learn to integrate Common Core Mathematics and Language Arts practices along with Next Generation Science skills and strategies into their curricula via environmental education. The goal is to help educators use their school grounds and facilities as learning laboratories.

PLCs — smaller groups drawn from the 50 participants — will include teams of teachers from 13 K-12 schools that are committed to the Connecticut Green LEAF Schools program. Individuals will learn throughout the program, supported by teacher-education faculty from the four state universities, working alongside the state’s best environmental educators. Participants have a choice of exploring School Yards, School Gardens or School Resources in the Curriculum, in a program of 64+ contact hours from summer 2014 to summer 2015.

The state universities have partnered to create a dynamic learning experience for the participants. To complement the interdisciplinary sessions taught by faculty members, Eastern’s Media Department will be filming many of the workshops. The program will create a YouTube library of the topic discussions that can be used for review, shared with participants or used to enrich the resources available to all educators in the state. The teachers will be enrolled as non-credit students through Central, and their PLC groups will communicate through Blackboard, the industry standard for online course support, to continue learning and collaborating throughout the project. PLCs will develop an open archive of Common Core and Next Generation skills-based lesson support materials for environmental education curricula, and as well as case studies featuring replicable sustainability practices from Connecticut schools. The archives will be created with the help of several state university student interns, and will be accessible to the public via the www.ctgreenschools.org website hosted by Eastern’s Institute for Sustainable Energy.

Summer 2014 will be very “green” for state university faculty and staff working on the Green LEAF program. Faculty, staff and K-12 teachers will all be learning and sharing their knowledge and experiences. Green LEAF hopes to grow this program in the future, branching out to other topics such as nutrition and environmental quality issues. We all will benefit from this sustainable harvest!