Green Schools: Five Lessons Learned the Hard Way

August 9th, 2009

Editor’s Note: This post is for the Green Moms Carnival on Green Schools, which will appear here at OrganicMania on Tuesday,   August 11th. There will be great contributions from green women bloggers from all around the country, weighing in on green schools – from nursery school to college!

It seems like just yesterday that I squeezed into a seat at the kid-size cafeteria tables at my son’s new elementary school. I was there to participate in my very first PTA meeting, and while I was interested in many of the things going on at the school, what I really wanted to learn about were the school’s environmental initiatives. I wanted to get involved in the Green Committee.

Imagine my surprise when the PTA leadership didn’t seem to understand what I was talking about. They invited me to become involved with the committee that watered the trees over the summer. Oh, and they  really wanted some help with a children’s garden.


But I’m not much of a gardener. I may feel green, but my plants are brown. I wanted to focus on environmental issues like substituting  conventional school cleaning products with more environmentally friendly options;  introducing  waste-free lunches; eliminating the throw-away styrofoam trays used in our lunchroom;   replacing Sally Foster fundraisers with more eco-friendly options; and stopping the Cheap Plastic Crap giveaways used at school fundraisers.  And that was just for starters! Then I could see moving on to including walkable schools in our County and State Carbon Reduction Programs, retrofitting the school with solar or wind power, and more…

I think the other committee members went into overload just listening to my wish list.   Our principal suggested that the new parents hold back and watch and learn what went on at the school instead of jumping in with a million new directions.  So I did what comes unnaturally to this Jersey girl: I shut my mouth.

After the meeting, several other of the incoming parents approached me and said they understood and supported what I was proposing, and would be glad to help. The problem was that no one wanted to lead the effort. No one could seem to find the time.  I agreed to co-chair a committee, but soon found that coordinating with a co-chair and getting the committee off the ground fell by the wayside as I focused more of my energy on work, home, family, other volunteer work,  OrganicMania, and the Green Moms Carnival.

I blogged a bit about my Green Mom Culture Shock during this time and how I was Dealing with the Schools: Coping as  a Green Mom…but then I went all quiet on you. Didn’t say too much about what was going on…

So did we make progress this last school year? Yes, but not nearly as much as I would have liked. I did learn a few lessons, though, which I’m happy to share with other eager parents as they seek to navigate the new world of PTAs and public schools.  What about you? What’s worked for you? Please leave a message and share, because the new school year is about to start up and  we can all learn from each others’ experiences.  What’s worked for you as you’ve sought to green your school?

Lesson #1: Meet People Where They Are

Only months after that first meeting did I learn that the existing gardening committee had plenty of “greenies” involved who would have been happy to take on many of the other issues I proposed.  And had I volunteered first with that committee, proved myself, and learned how things worked at the school, our Green Committee probably would have had more impact.

Lesson #2 Get Support from Area Non-Profits

Through the Green  Schools committee of my town’s sustainable communities initiative, Bethesda Green, I learned that the Audobon Society’s Green Schools Initiative was  trying to reduce waste at my son’s school.   Several of the other committee members were from my son’s school, and we were encouraged us to go back and try again with the Green Committee, or just to do things on our own as we could fit them in.  The woman who led the charge? Probably the busiest one among us – she has triplets!

Lesson #3 Seek out Liked Minded Allies in the School Early On

Through the Green Schools committee, I met a teacher from my son’s school.  She was able to shed some light on mysteries like WHY the class buying lists contained so many plastic items, and how to get that changed for the next school year.

She was also able to explain that there were a bunch of different Green initiatives going on at school that would have more reach and impact if they were coordinated. Coincidentally, I heard the same thing from the PTA president at that time.  Soon we were able to get things a bit better organized, and on much sounder footing for this coming school year.

Having friends “on the inside” of the school really helps!

Lesson #4 Connect with other Local Schools and Learn  What’s Worked There

Some of the other schools here in Bethesda, Maryland  have had far greater participation in their “Waste-Free Wednesday” lunch campaigns than we did with ours. It may just take time for new ideas to take root, but  it would  have been ideal if we could have touched base with the green leaders at our town’s other schools to see how they achieved so much success.  Thanks to our community-wide Green Schools initiative, we’ll be connecting with those other green school leaders soon.

Lesson #5 Propose Well Thought-Out Alternatives

It’s not enough to say, “Get rid of the traditional school fundraising programs and  all of the “stuff” that they push on people!”   When well established fund raising programs are bringing in $20K or so for the PTA, you’ve got to have a plan to replace that money.  There are many new green school fundraising programs emerging, but how much money are schools actually making from these programs?  That’s one question I haven’t yet been able to answer to our PTA’s satisfaction.   (Perhaps a kind reader  will leave a comment here with that information!)

What about you? What’s worked and what hasn’t worked as you’ve sought to “green” your neighborhood schools?  Please leave  comment and share!


Copyright OrganicMania 2009

12 Responses to “Green Schools: Five Lessons Learned the Hard Way”

  1. Anna (Green Talk) on August 9, 2009 11:59 pm

    I have found to pick one or two items to get started each year. I am in charge of the recycling for cash at the school. Slowly over the years I have introduced a number of fundraisers but they are small and don’t amount to much. The good thing is it is keeping stuff out of landfills.

    Being persistent but not too pushy is how I have dealt with the schools. If they say no to me this year, I try it again next year. I do agree that being on the green committee helps. They are already established.

    Perhaps offer to put up green initiatives being done in the school on the schools website? Contact me I will link you to what we are doing on our website.

  2. Mindful Momma on August 10, 2009 7:51 am

    This is a very helpful post Lynn! I’m gearing up to take on more green initiatives at my son’s school – and you’ve got some great points to consider…especially about looking for support from local non-profits.

  3. Green Bean on August 10, 2009 7:59 am

    I was new to my son’s school last year, too, and also on a Green Team that never really got off the ground. There was already a recycling/composting program in place. So I joined the school garden determined to turn it into an Edible Schoolyard program, only the woman in charge just wanted me to come in a couple times and dig. So, oh well. Someone else already put up posters for waste free lunches.

    I looked into TerraCycle stuff as a fundraiser but honestly it’s just not enough money to make it worth it. Our school was in desperate need of money and we couldn’t buy solar panels or anything big without money.

    Instead, I went a bit smaller. In my son’s classroom, I swapped out the cleaning supplies and donated dozens of recycled paper towels. I worked on a rummage sale which I felt at least helped divert thousands of items from the landfill. I ensured that all leftover supplies were recycled or freecycled. I hooked up a friend with a green fundraiser, Tonic Mailer (which flopped btw). And that was good enough.

    This post motivates me, though. I’ve been asked to join the PTA this year. Last year, the fledgling and now defunct Green Team thought about having a PTA person dedicated to getting events greener. I’ll have to see if that can play out.

  4. Melissa on August 10, 2009 12:54 pm

    Great post. I am thinking on a smaller scale, like what Green Bean mentioned – starting in the kids’ classrooms and working my way up. The kids are both at a new school this year and I’ve joined the PTA but on orientation night, they were handing out origami pieces, notebooks, plastic erasers, etc.

    I’m hoping to get the teacher to use the eco-friendly cleaning products in the classroom. I want to buy a basket of products and “donate” to her, but I also wanted to include a note. I just don’t know what to put in the note. Any ideas are welcome. :)

  5. Organic and Green Mom Blog | Green Schools: Green Moms Tell It Like It Is! at Organic Mania on August 11, 2009 9:43 am

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  6. Diane MacEachern on August 12, 2009 2:17 am

    At our local middle school, kids have organized a campaign to get rid of throwaway lunch trays. They’re raising money at the farmer’s market and elsewhere to buy reusable trays, and presenting their case to the school board. Elsewhere, kids have demanded locally grown, organic food. Want to make change? Get the kids involved! Maybe that’s lesson #6!

  7. Katy on August 14, 2009 5:56 pm

    Yes, Lynnn! This is such hard work. People in schools are busy and overwhelmed as it is. We’ve worked hard in our school to establish an all school composting program (with massive support from a local non-profit), and get more local and healthy food in the cafeteria. You’re right, you’ve got to start somewhere. The kids will learn anything, it’s the adults that are so hard to change. My students have set up recycling, helping with energy saving construction projects but there is still much work to be done (those little milk cartons!). Stay the course, and we need more people working together on this.

  8. Lynn on August 14, 2009 7:08 pm

    Hi Ladies,

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I wish you all lived in my neighborhood and could serve on the Green Team with me! What fun we would have and what trouble we would make! :) Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond…that long carnival post about did me in! — Lynn

  9. Organic and Green Mom Blog | Mean Mommy No More: How Eco-Green Became Really Awesome at Organic Mania on August 14, 2009 8:25 pm

    […] all my lamenting about the challenges of going green in the public schools, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to attend a crunchy school.  Now  I have some sense […]

  10. Lisa on August 15, 2009 10:10 am

    My worry around here there are big budget cuts that are really hurting our schools so no one is willing to listen about any new ideas. Even if they save in the long run they don’t have any money to spend.

    I hope that this problem is fixed soon so school will be more open to becoming greener.
    .-= Lisa´s last blog ..The Economy And Going Green =-.

  11. Organic and Green Mom Blog | Green Giveaway: Waste-Free Lunch Box by Citizen Pip and 15% off Kids Konserve at Organic Mania on August 24, 2009 2:33 pm

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