Commitment to Quality

By Kiley Jacques

Georgina Cruz, teacher at the Instituto Thomas Jefferson’s Zona Esmeralda campus helps a young student water a schoolyard garden.

Mexico City’s Instituto Thomas Jefferson looks for ways to make its sustainability efforts as impactful as possible.


For 37 years, the Instituto Thomas Jefferson (ITJ) has been a forerunner for social emotional learning, project-based education, and student-powered innovation. Today, its mission is campus-wide sustainability on all fronts—from LEED-certified buildings to Green Apple Day of Service projects to the environmentally focused K-12 curricula.

ITJ—a network of schools based in Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Queretaro—is committed to “whole school sustainability,” which is built on a framework that looks at organizational culture, physical place, and educational programming. “ITJ is not a common school,” notes Organizational Culture Leader Monica Bleiberg, whose role it is to connect the ITJ community through initiatives that build a sustainability culture. “We enrich our educational model with innovative projects all the time so our teachers and students are used to new challenges,” she explains. “When we decided to embrace the whole school sustainability framework, Green Apple Day of Service became the perfect way to motivate teachers and students to commit to sustainable initiatives.”

Green Apple Day of Service is a global initiative developed by the USGBC that encourages educators and students to rethink their schools—participants have multiple and varied opportunities to redesign and transform their surroundings to make them more sustainable. Past projects have included removing toxic materials from school grounds, performing sustainability assessments, hosting open houses at green schools, and creating signage to encourage conscientious behavior. ITJ has set the goal of 1,000 Day of Service projects this year. Bleiberg admits the figure is a challenging one, but believes it is achievable. “We still have some time…we already have 910 projects registered, so I think it is likely we will get to 1,000 projects.” Given Green Apple Day of Service is scheduled for September 26, 2015, they will likely reach that goal.

However, Physical Place Leader Mariana Aristizabal notes, “To have a high-quality, big-impact project is more important than the number of projects.” This idea is somewhat new—originally the focus was on the number of projects completed. Now they wish to emphasize quality over quantity. “It is more important to have a project that includes all of the community and all of the schools, teachers, and staff,” says Aristizabal.

Each ITJ campus has its own sustainability coordinator, who is responsible for organizing Green Apple Day of Service projects. Individual project ideas come from many sources including educators—one teacher looked into how to create wind power on site. The students, too, offer suggestions—like conserving water by putting a bucket in the shower to collect the water that flows while waiting for it to heat up, and using it for irrigation, cleaning, or some other purpose.

In 2014, ITJ made the decision to invest in its future as a forward-thinking, cutting-edge institution. It has since worked tirelessly “to put all of its students and teachers in schools that have a responsible environmental footprint, support the health of occupants, and support education for sustainability.” The institute has partnered with U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC’s) Center for Green Schools, which works to “ensure every student has the opportunity to attend a green school within this generation.”


Jesse McElwain, Center for Green Schools, works with Diana Figueroa, ITJ Sustainability Coordinator, to engage students in Green Apple Day of Service planning.

The Center works directly with staff, teachers, faculty, students, ambassadors, elected officials, and communities to turn schools into sustainable places to learn, work, and play. Through its work with the Green Schools Fellowship Program, the staff at the center have gained insights into system-wide sustainability for schools like ITJ. Hannah Debelius and Anisa Baldwin Metzger from the center recently used this knowledge to design and lead training with Bleiberg and Aristizabal to clarify the roles and responsibilities of ITJ’s sustainability coordinators.

Currently, ITJ’s Physical Place department is building a new high school for which they are seeking LEED Platinum certification (it will be the first to achieve this designation in Mexico). They have set 27 goals that will aid in its function as a learning tool. They also seek certification for existing buildings. “We work on everything people can touch and see,” says Aristizabal, who oversees the reconstitution and renovation of the campuses. With support from the Center, ITJ plans to implement LEED Lab, a multidisciplinary immersion course that utilizes the built environment to educate and prepare students to become green building leaders and sustainability-minded citizens. Students at each campus will participate in the certification process.

“For ITJ, the emotional health, the values, and the skills of a child are even more important than his or her academic success,” says Bleiberg. “We care about the emotional side of learning, of buildings, of teaching because at ITJ we know, we have seen the amazing things a passionate 15-year-old student can do. So we work to engage and direct the students’ passion toward positive changes.”

ITJ’s K-12 curricula focus on energy efficiency, water conservation, transportation, air quality, food and nutrition, and waste management. Their collaboration with the Center for Green Schools has resulted in the idea of “sustainable intelligence,” which is based on the award-winning curricula and programming of EcoRise Youth Innovations in Austin, Texas. “This year, we encouraged sustainable projects through project-based learning,” explains Bleiberg, who sees this as a way to cover all academic areas. “Next year, we will pilot a sustainable intelligence curriculum from kindergarten through 12th grade.”

And what do the students think of all this? “They are happy,” says Aristizabal. “They understand we only have one planet so we need to start taking action right now. They are committed to these sustainable teachings. They know they are doing good things for the planet at this moment and they want to keep going. We have 22 students who want to be leaders on climate change.”

Rachel Gutter, senior vice president of Knowledge at USGBC speaks with Ricardo Carvajal, co-founder of Instituto Thomas Jefferson.

Commitment to whole school sustainability includes communicating with the greater community to share their activities and to keep people abreast of the schools’ progress. Establishing “conservation behavior” and institutionalizing “progressive efficiency” are also key components for success. It takes the whole academic body to reach such ambitious goals. Luckily, its educators, staff members, and students share the same vision and are excited to see it coming to fruition. Of ITJ’s students, Bleiberg says, “They are used to feeling empowered and capable of having a positive impact on the world, but it still requires consistent and great effort from them.” Clearly, they are making that effort.

Student on the Instituto Thomas Jefferson’s Santa Monica campus sorts trash to divert waste from a landfill.

  • Planting edible gardens
  • Recycling in classrooms
  • Eco-Day participation
  • Composting
  • Reforestation planting
  • Making of organic cleaning products
  • Blog writing about sustainability issues
  • Water conservation initiative planning