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Is Your District Going Green? Virginia Beach Leaders Offer Tips to Conference Attendees

If school districts want to make sustainability a priority for their students, staff and community, they have to do more than just talk about it. They must change their culture, according to administrators of Virginia Beach City Public Schools in Virginia.

“When you talk about environmental practices, you’re going to have eyes on you and you most certainly are going to get a lot of questions. But you have to model to kids that this stuff matters,” said Aaron Spence, superintendent in Virginia Beach.

Attendees of Thursday’s “Creating Culture Change Through the Triple Bottom Line” session at the AASA’s National Conference on Education heard Spence and his fellow administrators describe how they made sustainability a priority for their school district through a variety of changes, including the construction of environmentally friendly buildings, efficient stormwater drains and propane-fueled buses.  

In addition, schools in the district provide healthful foods for lunch with vegetables plucked fresh from a student-managed garden. The importance of locally grown food was a sustainable goal, reducing the costs and pollution associated with shipping in some vegetables. Some of the Virginia Beach schools also raise bees and make honey.

“Letting students be involved makes them part of the process. They know that they’ve grown it. It's their food,” said Jack Freeman, chief operations officer of Virginia Beach City Public Schools.

Freeman noted that the district has even made sustainability an important focus in its curriculum. For one assignment, students mapped the Chesapeake Bay, then generated solutions to reduce pollution in the bay.

Changing a school district’s culture to focus on a value like sustainability requires a strategy of making changes in all aspects of the school district, from sustainability lesson plans and student activities to the school’s own practices in the cafeteria kitchen, the district’s administrators said.

The district administration stays focused by constantly measuring and questioning the impact of their efforts. They consider whether their decisions and activities are driving three outcomes − social, environmental and economic improvement − what they call the “triple bottom line.”

The panel encouraged attendees to take up leadership positions and apply these ideas in their own school districts.

“People don’t only follow the plan, they follow the man.” said Tim Cole, sustainability officer for the Virginia Beach district.

(Alexa Vazquez is a sophomore at Bonita Vista High and an intern for AASA’s Conference Daily Online)

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