In 2014, the Center for Green Schools selected Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) as the fifth school district to participate in its Green Schools Fellowship Program. I was hired as GRPS’s Green Schools Fellow and served as the district’s on-site sustainability officer, tasked with collaborating with leadership and staff to bring sustainable and environmentally responsible practices into schools.
Using a whole-school approach, we worked to reduce environmental impacts of district operations, improve student health and performance and achieve environmental literacy. Over the course of three years, the fellowship resulted in nearly $700,000 in leveraged funding, the creation of seven school-based green teams, and students at all 52 schools actively learning about sustainability.
Highlights of the GRPS achievements
- Green cleaning: GRPS has reduced the number of daily cleaning agents from over 60 to just five. All chemicals now meet standards set forth by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or Green Seal. The school district also replaced disposable rags with reusable microfiber cleaning cloths, eliminating daily cleaning waste and saving the district over $100,000 annually.
- Tree planting: Over the past three years, GRPS planted 138 trees at 13 schools and educated over 500 students on the benefits of trees, the identification of invasive species and proper tree maintenance. In addition, the district invests in global reforestation projects to offset all printing paper usage and will plant 300 trees on school property over the next two years.
- Composting: In 2016, in partnership with the operations team, I helped roll out a single-stream recycling program in every classroom, office and workroom across the district. Students at seven schools are now also composting their lunchroom waste. To date, GRPS students have composted over 360 tons of organic waste and diverted over 600,000 trays from the landfill.
- Energy management: Early on in the fellowship, I researched services we could use to better understand and manage the district’s energy use, and as a result, the district made significant strides—we now benchmark utility consumption in all of our 60+ buildings. The district was a founding member of the Grand Rapids 2030 District and as a competitor in the Michigan Battle of the Buildings, an energy use reduction competition.
Grand Rapids students use a composting and recycling station.
The fellowship term has come to an end, but GRPS has committed to maintaining a focus on greening our schools and connecting students to hands-on sustainability topics in and out of the classroom.
In addition, the local community has been an important supporter of this work, and in February 2018, the West Michigan Environmental Action Council honored me as a Woman of Inspiration in the environmental movement during their “Hidden Heroine” award program. In 2018, I am currently working to bring the district’s composting program to all schools, implement an internal green revolving fund to support future sustainability projects and expand environmental education experiences for all of the district’s 17,000 students.
Do you know a school district employee who is working on sustainability and could benefit from a professional network to share, learn and grow? Contact the Center for Green Schools to get them connected to our School Sustainability Leaders Network.