Q&A With Green Schools National Network’s Jennifer Seydel

Green Schools National Network is a nonprofit dedicated to whole-school and whole-district sustainability that shifts the paradigm to transform school cultures so students become changemakers, not just test-takers, prepared to live in and lead a sustainable future.

Green Schools helps schools integrate sustainability and systems thinking into leadership, curriculum, instruction, culture, climate, facilities, and operations. Last year, Green Schools released the book, Trailblazers for Whole School Sustainability, featuring stories from around the country that highlight best practices and lessons from teachers, administrators, and students as they transformed school communities for a just and sustainable future. 

In this Q&A, Green Schools Executive Director Jennifer Seydel shares how sustainability transformation helps schools bring real-life lessons in science, inclusion, problem-solving, and justice to the classroom — and why every public school is already equipped to get involved. 

Green Schools National Network believes educating for a sustainable future isn’t an option, but a necessity. Why is that true?

Every day when we read the news and see the headlines, it is clear we are on an unsustainable path, both when it comes to equity and justice, as well as when it comes to living in balance with the planet and understanding our connection with the biological cycles of nature. We’re at a tipping point. 

I’m a science educator and have been a part of the environmental education world for many years. I started work with an education reform group and led their science program. More and more, as an individual, I felt schools were not doing enough to prepare students to co-create a sustainable future. At Green Schools, we believe in whole-school and whole-district transformation because we cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome.

Why are schools critical to a sustainable future? 

Sixty percent of the people in this country work, learn, and play in a school or are influenced by what happens in a school on a daily basis. This is a lever that has yet to be fully pulled when it comes to modeling what’s possible for a sustainable future. We have partners across the country who are doing amazing work, showing that this is possible within the parameters of public education. We believe it needs to go to scale, and it needs to go to scale rapidly.

When we talk about systems change there are often conversations around who is responsible for the change. In the transformation of our educational system, who is responsible? What role do educators play?

It’s critical that leaders in schools and on school boards understand their impact and their role in preparing students to be part of the solutions. A K–12 school system is so complex, there are thousands of things you could do. They say every educator makes 4,000 decisions a day and every single one of those decisions has the potential to be influenced by a lens of sustainability and equity. 

School leaders, decision-makers, and policies all need to be aligned and engaged. It’s everybody’s responsibility. At Green Schools, we focus on district-level leaders, school building-level leaders, curriculum and instructional leaders, and facilities and operations leaders. 

Where do students and their education come into play? How does it go from the district level down to what the students are learning every day?

We can look at it two ways. One is the passive side: students as passive receivers of input. They can be exposed to wholesome, healthy, fresh food; they can learn that living and breathing in a net-zero energy school building is possible. And they can understand that there are ways to manage water on their landscape. We often talk about the building and grounds as a three-dimensional textbook. So just in the modeling process, by district leaders making the right decisions, there is a lot of influence. 

Then on the teaching and learning side, we focus on phenomenon-, place-, project-, and problem-based learning in our approach to curriculum and instruction. And in doing so, the real-world issues, the people, places, and events of the moment, are the curriculum. And the most relevant issues of the time are what students are learning about, in developmentally appropriate ways. 

In pre–K and kindergarten, it’s about taking care of their classroom. In upper elementary, it’s about taking care of their school. In the middle grades, we’re getting more involved in the community, and in high school, we’re involved in the community, the state, and the region. Real-world issues and topics become critical places where students learn and develop the skill sets they need to be successful human beings.

How do you see these real-world lessons playing into justice, belonging, and inclusion?  

If we’re talking about inclusion and equity in early childhood, it is about understanding how to take care of each other. In the middle elementary grades, we continue to build on how we take care of each other, but also how we protect each other, understanding what is hurtful and harmful to others and how we can care for each other on a broader scale. In middle school, we begin to look at the economic impacts of inequitable education systems and how we can take action to change that by changing policy or practice. At the high school level, it can go even deeper. We can look at health inequities and environmental justice issues. 

Depending on the context of the community, those things are playing out in so many real ways. But we also need to understand what we’re able to process developmentally and how to scaffold those experiences to allow people to own and understand themselves in the midst of diverse and often inequitable communities. Being able to talk about and understand the dynamics of all of these issues is essential for us to understand who we are as a human species and how we are in our communities.

In the book, Trailblazers for Whole School Sustainability, you showcase how schools across the nation are integrating sustainability throughout the entire system. Why did you want to put this book together? 

Many people say they can’t do this work because they’re in a public education system. Part of our theory of change is that we want to have exemplary school districts in every state with every demographic. No matter who you are, it’s easy to say “I can’t do that.” With these examples, we can say “Yes, you can, because this district looks just like you, and look what they’re doing.” 

We all learn best from experiences and seeing people doing the work. So pulling together the book of exemplars was essential. Building a supportive network is also part of that strategy to ensure we have school districts across the country who can be exemplars of this work. Nobody can do it all. But you can specialize in an area and get really great at it. And then you can start unwinding and untangling in other areas to be able to do more whole systems change.

We can start anywhere. Start in curriculum and instruction, and focus on equity, and then unpeel and understand how equity is a part of sustainability. We can focus on curriculum related to environmental literacy and unpeel from there. We can start on facilities and operations in decreasing our footprint and realize, looking at the data, which schools are more efficient and what policies have allowed us to invest in certain schools and not others. The data is critical as we try to become systems thinkers and change agents.

Which stories from the book stand out to you?

Every single one brings lessons learned. As the leader of the Green Schools National Network, that’s what brings me the most hope — that every school district can be a part of this.

The fact that leadership focus in Philadelphia started in the community and pulled in the superintendent who then assigned it out to staff members, is brilliant. Or, in Encinitas, the fact that every single one of their schools uses a different instructional model but they have this framework everybody adheres to. Environmental stewardship is one of the five pillars in the district, yet every school has its own identity, which is what we want in our neighborhood and community schools. Or the chapter by Joel Tolman at Common Ground High School, which is an amazing high school in Connecticut where the students are designing the curriculum themselves. How brilliant is that? 

What do you hope the future of schools looks like?

I would love schools to be responsive to the students’ needs, not to test scores. If we ground ourselves in what students need, we will find that they need to be in nature, they want to be in community, they care about each other and they want to be responsible citizens in their communities, schools, classrooms, cities, and states. I think we would find the same thing by listening to parents and our communities about what they want.