Teaching the Teachers

Teaching the Teachers

A Pittsburgh program is giving local schools the tools they need to sprout their own green revolutions.

By Calvin Hennick

Years ago, Jenna Cramer’s high school alma mater called her up looking for advice.

Cramer had just recently begun working at the Pittsburgh-based Green Building Alliance, and her former high school was in the middle of a building project. School district officials wanted to pursue Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, but much of the design for the new building had already been completed, and the cost of going back and starting over proved to be prohibitive. Despite district leaders’ interest in building a green school, it did not happen. They had simply waited too long.

For Cramer, the scenario felt familiar. “It was the repetitive story of always being called a little too late,” Cramer says. “One of the barriers we found is that schools were calling us after they had their design and building teams onboard, and the teams were not steering them in the direction of building green and healthy schools.” The architects often lacked experience with sustainable design, she says, and as a result they tended to emphasize the costs of going green while downplaying the benefits.

Jenna Cramer, vice president of transformation & community.

The Academy hosts several programs and services, including a lecture series and energy conservation workshops.


Cramer felt that the Green Building Alliance, the local aligned chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), needed to get involved earlier in the process to help schools follow their green instincts. But, she says, “We had no way to be there at the right point and be seen as a trusted resource [to] help influence the decision-making process.”

Since 2008, the Green Building Alliance has been working with K-12 school leaders, students, outside groups, and citizens to help them create sustainable learning environments. The organization held green schools conferences during the first couple years of the effort, but even those events were not enough to create the deep relationships necessary for Cramer and her colleagues to effect change within the schools.

Then, in 2012, the organization launched the Green Schools Academy, a more formal partnership in which select schools work closely with the group. (The name was changed to the Green & Healthy Schools Academy in 2014.) The academy comprises several different programs and services, including a lecture series, energy conservation workshops, technical assistance, and help for schools participating in the Green Apple Day of Service, an initiative of the Center for Green Schools at USGBC. But at the heart of the academy is the two-year School Sustainability Culture Program, an immersive experience that brings stakeholders from six to eight schools (or districts) together for monthly meetings, with the ultimate goal of integrating sustainability into the schools’ buildings, curriculum, and culture. The idea is that schools will come out of the program not only with new knowledge, but also an increased focus on sustainability—so that whether they are building a new school or choosing cleaning supplies, they will do so from an environmentally friendly perspective at the start, rather than trying to green the project halfway through.

“We can’t be there every time a school has to make a decision,” Cramer says. “If we start out by building this really strong ‘why’ that is connected to their values as a school, they can’t unlearn that ‘why.’ From that point, they think about these values every time they do a building project, or they have to purchase new supplies, or they develop a new curriculum. It becomes a part of who [they are].”

“We wanted to create a program that would have a very big impact in a short amount of time,” Cramer adds. “Rather than trying to reach every school, we decided to focus on a few schools and make them models of what a healthy, sustainable school could look like.”

The program was so successful in the city of Erie, Pennsylvania, that the local school district created a new sustainability plan. Doreen Petri, chair of the science department at Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy (a magnet high school in Erie), says the plan has already led to big changes in the district’s elementary science curriculum, with kids at some schools planting trees, maintaining pollinator gardens, building birdhouses, and conducting energy audits as part of sustainability-focused units. After a pilot, Petri says, the superintendent wants to expand the curriculum changes to more schools.

Petri says that the new focus on sustainability will definitely last. “Many times, environmental initiatives are serviced by an after-school program or a club, but then when teachers switch schools or retire—when that champion teacher leaves—that program falls apart,” she says. “This is going to be part of our curriculum.”

Left, above: Guest speaker David Orr discusses the reality of climate change, how to talk to students about the climate, and his work with Oberlin College. Left, below: Workshop attendees receive a personal tour of the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Center for Sustainable Landscapes. Right, above: Kirsten Christopherson-Clark, head of school of the Waldorf School of Pittsburgh, relies on the expertise of the Green Building Alliance. Right, below: Founded in 1993, the Waldorf School of Pittsburgh is housed in a Victorian-era mansion that is a city-designated historic landmark.

Kirsten Christopherson-Clark, head of school for the pre-K-to-8 private Waldorf School of Pittsburgh, says that participating in the academy’s culture program “was kind-of like having to stretch new muscles” in that it forced her to articulate her vision for the school more fully and clearly than she had before.

As a final project, the Waldorf School engaged its surrounding community in a place study. “We worked with students, parents, and neighbors to look at our campus and see what was there and imagine what could come,” Christopherson-Clark says. In one outcome of that process, a neighboring charity passed along grant money it had available for a “natural playground” featuring boulders and logs.

One benefit to the academy, Christopherson-Clark says, is that schools can continue to draw on the expertise of the Green Building Alliance even after they are done with the program. “The connection isn’t lost,” she says. “At any time, we know we can reach out and ask them for advice, bounce ideas off of them. The investment and the commitment to seeing your school succeed, it’s really genuine. It’s not one-and-done.”

Alumni Notes

“This program has changed the way I look at teaching, work with my students, and think about change itself. I came away with a whole different mindset and way to live my life.” –Kim Bliley, Teacher, Erie School District

“We’re already doing this sustainability stuff. We thought, ‘What can they teach us?’ In the program, we learned so much, and realize we have so much more to learn.” –Bob Gold, Facilities Director, Chartiers Valley School District

“The Culture Program transformed my leadership style and allowed me to support a change-agent mindset for my organization. We went from checking boxes, to getting an award, to changing hearts and minds.” —Nikole Sheaffer, Director of Innovation, The Environmental Charter School at Frick Park