August 16, 2014
By Carl Smith
For decades, Dr. Tony Knight of the Oak Park Unified School District has remained focused on implementing curriculum and facility programs that create healthy learning environments and help students gain first-hand knowledge of the power of individual action. The district efforts have set the pace for efforts other schools as in the state as well as the local community.
Oak Park was the first district in California to be recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a Green Riboon District. In an interview with Green Technology, Dr. Knight talks about the origins of the district’s green programs, the ways that they support the district’s mission and the financial and educational rewards that have resulted from them
Your district is the first Green Ribbon district in the state, and one of the first in the country. Why was it important to you to work toward this goal?
It’s funny – we’ve been working toward it without knowing there was going to be any recognition. We’ve had a strong environmental focus in the school district for a very long period of time and it’s always been something that’s been important to us.
The benefits are so great that we just do these things. We want our kids to learn about these practices. We want to model them for our community and for our learning community. It’s a unique role that a school district gets to have. Our mission is to educate – not just the students enrolled in our school district but the wider public. We take that very seriously.
How did your green programs get started?
I was principal at Oak Hills elementary school for 13 years, from 1989-2001, and I was privileged to work with some parents there who were way ahead of their time in regard to the environment. I guess I was as well. We worked together; they had positions on the PTA board at the school and we actually designated a person just for the environment.
We did some things at the school that were fairly progressive for the time – for example, asking the students to bring a zero-trash lunch, sorting our recycling and cutting our waste down. I remember writing in the school’s newsletter that we went from 8 or 9 giant trash barrels a day at the end of lunch to less then one. We did that in a very short period of time and maintained it for many, many years.
I asked the superintendent at the time if we could have an environmental committee for the school district and said I’d like to chair it. She was very supportive. I started to meet parents and teachers from the other schools and we started sharing things amongst the schools, talking about how we could be better and how we could work with our waste hauler on recycling. At that time, it wasn’t done. There was no curbside recycling, so we had big bins here where people could bring their glass and their bottles and their plastic and their paper and dump it here. We were a resource for the community. Then we pushed and pushed to get curbside recycling in the community. We kept going from there.
Eventually I became superintendant of the school district and always felt this was a very important moral issue for the school district. We have a school board that’s very concerned about these issues as well and that’s helped us propel these things and to be more involved then we might otherwise be. We’ve also had key parents and teachers who have been very excited about the different initiatives that we have and have worked to move them forward.
What factors have contributed to your success?
There are a lot of little decisions that have to be made at the administration level and you have to be interested in and understand the implications of these decisions. Even something as mundane as what kind of fertilizer are you going to put on all the turf. School districts have a lot of turf and landscape. What kind of fertilizer are you going to use? I said I’m not okay with using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides or glyphosate or Roundup around the school district. We asked the company that does our mowing and the fertilizing if they could use organic fertilizer.
They said, “It’s going to to cost you more,” so we said, “OK, how about this? Switch to organics, but cut back on the amount of fertilizer that you use and let’s see what happens.” That’s what we did, 7-8 years ago, and we found was the turf was just as green as it was when they used synthetics. The students are safer on the turf – the material safety data sheet on the organic fertilizer indicates it isn’t harmful to touch, whereas the synthetic fertilizer had all kinds of warnings and problems. Now we have people in the community coming forward saying we want the parks department to do the same thing, we want the people who maintain the medians to do the same thing, we want our homeowners association to do the same thing.
It’s a leadership position that the school district can maintain. We don’t have authority over those people, but you achieve this type of leadership by trying to do the morally right thing for your community
Have you seen financial benefits from your green programs?
We have. As schools are being repaired and modernized under our bond measure, the district is installing cool roof systems, energy efficient lighting, heating and cooling systems, double-paned windows and smart irrigation systems that receive data from weather satellites to determine when and how much water to apply. These measures have resulted in significant savings of water and energy. In July and August of last year, we saved over 1.5 million gallons of water as compared to the previous summer. In terms of energy we are using about 284,000 kWh less in electricity per year as compared to 2008-2009, even though we have nearly 1,000 more students. That’s the equivalent of approximately 300,000 lbs of CO2 emissions annually that we’re saving because of just those things we are doing in our buildings.
This is definitely saving us money to put back in the general fund.
Have these efforts changed the learning environment?
I think so – our student achievement has continued to rise parallel to these efforts, but we’ve also increased our investment in educational technology and done a lot of different kinds of things. But I do think that the environmental programs have had a positive effect on student learning. More importantly, I think we’ve seen more affective things that you can’t measure very well such as student attitude and happiness at school, etc. Parents know that we care a lot about their kids because of the things that we do. They know that, and it gives parents more of a sense that the school district is nurturing for their children. That’s important too.
Your district is in a relatively affluent community. Could most of the things you are doing be done by any district?
These things are not money related. I think they are things that all school districts should be doing, especially districts that serve disadvantaged students. For example, it is really important to have a garden in a school and a program that surrounds it. There’s so much benefit to that, from the research about student diet and overall health to knowledge about the environment and where their food comes from – how it’s produced and how hard it is to produce.
I work every week in the garden at one of the elementary schools. I don’t have to but I do I commit myself to it. I get to know those kids really well. I listen to what they say and watch them learn through the program that we have designed. These are 5th grade kids and they really have no idea about how food is grown or produced at all. Most of them don’t even go to the market to go buy it. It’s handed to them on a plate 3 times a day. It’s just unbelievable, when you think about it, that they have no idea how it’s produced or how much work it is.
I visited Charles Evans Hughes Middle School in Long Beach, a school that serves more disadvantaged students then we have. I saw them doing these things – and more, actually. The campus was spectacular, with plantings all around, and the kids taking care of everything. Their green club kids were amazing.
Is it important for students to learn about sustainability in an environment where green concepts are being practiced?
The kids need to hear these things from their teachers experience and then see them being practiced. I think that’s how people really learn about things. Then they go home and talk to their parents about it.
I just got an email today from a teacher who got an email from a parent whose child is in an environmental studies class that was offered as an elective at our middle school. The parent was explaining how the child was transformed. It was a life changing experience for this child, who is now turning off lights and being careful about how much water she uses when she brushes her teeth, the kind of products they buy, what happens to the waste and that kind of thing. Before this class this was not something on her radar screen and now it’s even affecting the whole family in a positive way.
It is part of our district’s moral imperatives to teach students about social responsibility, about environmental responsibility, about protection of wildlife. These are very important parts of what we try to have students come to understand, because a lot of what they get in their regular world through advertisement and their daily life doesn’t really touch upon our impact on the planet. How it can be reduced and minimized as much as possible?
We have a big program called “Ideas to Impact” where kids in groups of six take on a particular project. They do community outreach, they do lessons to younger children. These are middle school and high school kids and they go down to the elementary school and middle school and do lessons about whatever topic they are focusing on for that year. It’s really hands on learning the kids are doing more then telling them things. For example, in our middle school we started a project of food waste recycling. We made a deal with a company called Agromin in Ventura County, which takes food waste from restaurants and some bigger institutions and turns it into compost for use in farming.
They let us join in with them. At the middle school we had to teach our kids how to separate their trash into 3-4 different bins so that all the organic food waste went into one. That gets picked up and taken to Agromin for recycling, so we’re almost at zero waste at that school. Now we’re ready in the fall to spread it to all of our schools. We’re going to be one of the first school districts to have a food waste recycling program. When all the kids finish their lunch pretty much nothing will go to the landfill.
Any of our kids can tell you about why it’s important not to send stuff to the landfills. What does recycling actually mean and what happens to their products? I also have to say we talk very openly about global climate change in this community. I know that’s been controversial in different places – I’m still trying to grasp it with why it’s controversial because it’s science and it is what’s happening and it’s caused by humans. Our students learn about that in school and how they can mitigate that fact.
What kinds of things do they learn along this line?
Our environmental theme this year is “Making Peace with the Natural World: Peace Begins on our Plates.” Making peace with the natural world is a concept I encountered at a lecture I heard from Dr Sylvia Earle, the renowned oceanographer. She thinks that we have about 10 years to turn things around and if we don’t then it’s going to be too late. It’s time for us as a species to make peace with the natural world.
We took from that the idea that a lot of this peace begins on our plates. The United Nations reported in 2010 indicated that about 20% of the green house gases are from livestock production and that 70% of the land being used for agriculture in the United States is for the production of livestock and. Instead of getting better, the problem is getting worse. As other countries that were more plant-based in terms of their diets become more affluent, they want to eat more meat.
People don’t really understand the carbon footprint of their meal. They may be driving an environmentally electric car or a hybrid or turning off lights in their house, but if they sit down to eat a steak they’ve blown the whole thing because the energy that it’s taken to produce that is tremendous, and the amount of water, is huge.
We talk to students about adopting more of a plant-based diet – not necessarily becoming vegetarians or vegans, not that that would be a bad thing. We belong to the meatless Monday campaign of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. We have posters up at all of our schools with a little cow and a pig saying “We’re happy that it’s Monday.” Some parents said, “I object to that.” We said that we’re not promoting a particular lifestyle, but that you can’t find me a doctor that says that if the five meals a week that we serve your kids had less meat in them that wouldn’t be good for them. If somebody has to have meat 3 meals a day 7 days a week, that would not be good for them and very difficult on the environment.
We’re doing a food drive right now to support our local food bank and it’s all plant based. We have one school collecting peanut butter, one school collecting rice, one school collecting canned vegetables, one school collecting plant-based milks and all these different things to make a point. The school district has not served beef or pork or lamb or fish for the last 6 or 7 years. I gave the order on that after all those scandals came out about unsafe meat being sold to schools. We still serve chicken and turkey, but now we’re looking at trying to source those items through finding family farms rather than from the federal commodities program. This will probably cost more because they’re not subsidized by the federal government and we will add that cost to those meals for the students. At the same time, we’ll do a bigger better job at making more plant-based foods available to students are appetizing and cheaper.
We’re very concerned with the health of our kids and we will make sure that they grow up healthy. If you’re a national green ribbon school district concerned about the environment you are inconsistent unless you look at what you’re feeding your kids. I think our new wellness policy will be considered one of the most progressive anywhere.
What would you say to administrators who feel they don’t have the time or bandwidth to take a serious look at implementing green programs?
I would say they can’t afford not to think about it. It’s all connected. If you create an environment that’s safe and nurturing for your students this is sort of a natural part of that whole thing. That’s what we try to explain to people and people know that the kids feel nurtured in the school district and the school district values all the children and their safety, their well being, we’re concerned about the food that we feed them we’re concerned with where it came from. How much energy do the rooms that the kids learn in use for lighting and air conditioning? How were the carpeting and desks made, and what kinds of chemicals are in them. When was the last time that filter was changed in the air conditioning?
In my opinion, all those things need to be thought about when you’re dealing with education in my opinion. You can’t educate kids who are uncomfortable or who are not well cared or not well nourished. You can’t get achievement out of those kids because those other needs will just take over.
It’s really hard to explain, but when you have an environment it just sort of naturally occurs that you tend to hire principals that think this way and act in a certain way towards the students and the teachers. They hire teachers like this, and the parents very much appreciate that. It becomes sort of systemic, if you will, and it has a really positive effect on the culture of the whole organization. You can look at companies who are like this -they can do it quicker, but because we are dealing with children it is particularly important for us.