Engaging Students to Act on Climate with Environmental Literacy

“The students of today will be the architects of future climate strategies and our champions for achieving greenhouse gas reduction targets.”
– State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson

2015 was a big year for environmental and sustainability education, and a critical pivot point. Superintendent Torlakson’s Environmental Literacy Task Force had spent all of 2014 putting together a robust plan of recommended actions that would take California’s 6.2 million K–12 students toward a vision: Through a broad curriculum that includes expertly delivered classroom and out-of-classroom instruction by formal and informal educators, students in California will become environmentally literate and able to address current environmental challenges and prevent new ones. A Blueprint for Environmental Literacy: Educating Every Student In, About, and For the Environment was published in the fall of 2015. With the leadership of Bay Area non-profit Ten Strands, the Environmental Literacy Steering Committee has been working on putting the Blueprint’s recommendations into action since 2016.

Children have a special and critical role to play with regard to climate adaptation. Indeed, the recognition that it would be California’s public education system that would bear the brunt of the responsibility for preparing current and future generations to #ActOnClimate was implicit in the Task Force’s work. Environmental literacy will be a game-changer when it comes to our state reaching its ambitious climate goals.

I have had the distinct privilege of tapping into some of the very best of youth engagement on climate and sustainability in the context of California Green Ribbon Schools, a complement and pathway to U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools. There are hundreds of stories here from all corners of the state and the country, which have moved me and motivated me in my work year after year. Here are just two examples:

Yosemite High School in Merced

YHS is a continuation high school on the leading edge of the green schools movement in
California’s Central Valley. Here, where more than 94% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, English Learners, and/or foster youth, environmental education is all about engaging students and preparing them to earn good wages in the green economy.

Advocacy, social justice, and environmental justice are an integral part of the educational program at YHS. Students participate in field trips to the State Capitol, where they meet with legislators to advocate for laws and regulations on environmental issues and topics. Through civic engagement, students experience first-hand what it means to act on behalf of their environment—a critical building block for environmental literacy.

The innovative Green Technology and Energy Conservation (GTEC) courses offered at YHS provide students with access to California’s Energy & Power Technology career pathways and lead directly to industry certifications or employment opportunities. The GTEC curriculum is designed to fully integrate learning objectives critically relevant to the renewable energy and green technology industries. Model curriculum from industry partners helps prepare high school students for their industry exams.

“Green Technology” is an interdisciplinary course that integrates environmental and sustainability concepts across STEM, History-Social Science, and English Language Arts/English Language Development curriculum. The course uses hands-on interactive activities to engage students and help them understand how green technology is applied to our environment and how it helps make our communities sustainable. Students build reading, writing, and literacy skills analyzing laws and regulations impacting energy and discussing the effect these policies have on society. A partnership with GRID Alternatives engages about 50 students each year in ten service learning work experience days. After learning about solar technology and working with the demonstration solar panel on campus, students have the opportunity to participate in residential solar installations for low-income residents in and around Merced.

Jack London Community Day School in Valley Glen

Jack London Community Day School (CDS) is a small high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest school district in California and second largest in the nation. Community Day schools serve mandatory and other expelled students, students referred by a School Attendance Review Board, and other high-risk youths.
At CDS, sustainability is not only about the environment, it’s about empowering students to redirect their lives and learn to become positive agents of change through an ethic of environmental citizenship. In 2013, CDS put sustainability principles into action by greening the school, converting an 18,000-square-foot asphalt parking-lot campus into a garden. When the project began, there was not one square-inch of soil. From the start, the garden has been student-built and maintained.
The heart of CDS is its Peace Garden, where the essential question is, “How can we build a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world?” Implicit in sustainability are the concepts of food justice, wellness, and meeting the needs of the poor, issues many CDS families face. The Peace Garden serves as a small demonstration of an urban, edible garden for the community. Spaces in front of classrooms are utilized to show what individuals can do even if all they have is a small balcony on which to grow food in recycled containers. The garden is an Advanced Certified Wildlife Habitat, a Pollinator Habitat, and a Monarch Waystation.

CDS practices sustainable, urban horticulture as a way to meet the needs of the 21st century and manage an increasingly urban environment. Much of the effort involves container gardening on asphalt, the quintessential urban environment. The garden consists of 30 raised beds, two asphalt cuts, 47 fruit trees, and numerous pots. CDS designed and built their own raised beds. Vegetables, herbs, berries and fruits are grown organically and the garden literally bursts through the fences.

Behavior change is a key strategy for climate adaptation, and California’s students show us every day that they are ready to be the change we’ll need.

The value of a recognition program like California Green Ribbon Schools is that points to some of the bright spots in education. Within each honoree—all 90 of them since 2014—there is something special and replicable about the way the school or district uses sustainability and the environment as an engaging context across subjects. The California Green Ribbon Schools program application is designed to be used as a roadmap to a green school that reduces environmental impact, supports health and wellness, and builds environmental and sustainability literacy. School districts, public schools, and private schools can document their journey in an annual application cycle each fall. Program information is on the California Department of Education’s California Green Ribbon Schools web page and on Twitter, @CAGreenRibbon.

Lesley Taylor directs the California Green Ribbon Schools initiative and serves as the state coordinator for U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools at the California Department of Education. Her work in the School Facilities and Transportation Services Division is driven by her passion for the power of place in public education and her deep commitment to curiosity and collaboration across the social sector.