What happens when a school community adheres to the practices and principles of sustainability? Does the district save money? Does it help boost student achievement? Are students and staff healthier?

These are the kinds of questions that the New Jersey Sustainable Schools Project (NJSSP), currently underway, seeks to definitively answer. The project is a study that aims to capture data and analyze the relationship between creating healthier, more productive learning environments and student achievement. NJSSP is also cataloging best practices in sustainability in New Jersey districts and the savings achieved through sustainable practices, so that other districts can replicate those best practices.

The NJSSP was designed in response to the lack of conclusive data around K-12 sustainability initiatives.

Existing studies demonstrate that newly constructed green schools lower costs but there is little or no research that can be found about the impact of the process of ‘greening’ an older school building while simultaneously introducing sustainability concepts into the curriculum. For example, a well-known study done in 2006 by Gregory Kats, “Greening America’s Schools: Costs and Benefits,” established that it is not more expensive to “build green,” however that study focused solely on new construction, not existing buildings.

The NJSSP project began in 2011, and 20 New Jersey public school districts were accepted into the study as “pilot districts,” however progress stalled. In the summer of 2013 management of the project was transferred to the New Jersey School Boards Association.

Since 2011, the group has been narrowed to 11 districts which have elected to continue their participation in NJSSP. The participating districts are: Allamuchy, Cherry Hill (High School West), Highland Park, Holland Township, Medford, Neptune Township (Gables Elementary School), North Brunswick, Ogdensburg, Plumsted, Swedesboro-Woolwich, and West Orange.

The pilot districts are pursuing a variety of innovative sustainability measures.

In Allamuchy, for example, a district school is redirecting cafeteria waste with the help of Maschio, its food service contractor, and two compost systems. The composted food waste is used in the school garden, presenting the district with a double bonus – the school doesn’t buy fertilizer for the garden and it pays less in “tipping fees” to get rid of its garbage.

Swedesboro-Woolwich estimates it has saved $17,000 by going “paperless” and making the district newsletter and various flyers available electronically. Medford is on track this year to surpass its goal of reducing energy costs by 5 percent through various conservation measures. Cherry Hill is undergoing a comprehensive energy upgrade in several facilities throughout the district.

At the Gabels Elementary School in Neptune Township, officials are taking steps to improve indoor air quality by upgrading to HEPA (high-efficiency particulate absorption) air filters, replacing carpet and applying low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint that is routinely used. The school will track student asthma incidence by looking at the distribution of nebulizers and inhalers from the nurse to quantify the difference.

While these efforts –and those at the other school districts –proceed, the NJSSP team of professionals is observing and collecting data. Among the questions the NJSSP team is pursuing:

  • Are pilot teams achieving their measurable goals?
  • What are the processes used to meet these goals?
  • Are districts lowering operating costs through sustainability initiatives?
  • How are districts connecting measurable goals to student learning?
  • Is there a proven indicator that student achievement has improved as a result of these efforts?
  • To what extent are board of education members involved in meeting district goals?

The project team includes John Henry, NJSBA’s STEM and sustainable schools specialist; Kara Angotti, the U.S. Green Building Council Green Schools Fellow who is working at NJSBA on a three-year grant, Marianne Leone, project coordinator, and Phillip Mackey, an education researcher and consultant.

In the past several months, the team has been conducting site visits to the schools in the project, gathering data related to operating costs, student achievement, and governance. During these meetings, the team has also been able to offer resources, services and expertise to support district needs.

One example of how the project team is tracking and collecting specific data involves an initiative at Holland Township’s elementary school. The school is attempting to eliminate the use of polystyrene trays on Fridays and reduce cafeteria waste by 20 percent. The school’s team established a baseline by measuring how many total pounds of cafeteria waste were collected on a specific Friday, which happened to be Dec. 6, 2013. The school’s custom survey allows the team leader to submit the baseline figures and subsequent collection totals, monthly through the end of 2014. Through the survey tool, other information is collected, including a count of used polystyrene trays, as well as the methods used to achieve the reduction in waste. Over time, Holland Township will have the comparable data necessary to judge performance and adjust their process to achieve higher diversion rates. Eventually, this information could be used to negotiate food service and waste management contracts, connect math and science learning to building operations, and report operational savings to a range of stakeholders.

Regardless of the goal or district, one of the greatest challenges is not weighing the bags of waste or completing a survey, it’s working collaboratively across levels within the district. Within the short time the project team has worked with the 11 pilot districts, we have been encouraged by stories of operational savings, shifts in school culture, community connectivity, and healthy learning environments.

The districts are fortunate to have key school leaders who understand the monetary, environmental, and educational values of green schools and support their district through effective policy, environmental curriculum standards, and efficient operations and maintenance.

Over the next ten months we’ll collect data and processes used by the pilot districts. In early 2015 the professional research evaluator will administer exit interviews at each district. Then he will write a final report while the NJSSP Project Team compiles district information into a Best Green Practices Guidebook, scheduled for release in summer 2015. The guidebook will be distributed to every board of education member in the state with the intent of demystifying what it takes to make an existing facility a green school or district. The accomplishments and challenges faced by each district will be shared along with resources used to conduct this study.

The Alliance for Competitive Energy Services (ACES) generously funded this study to date, confirming its commitment to helping districts save money, prepare students for the future, and train board of education members on topics that influence how successful schools and students will be tomorrow.

The project team is equally interested to hear from school districts not involved in the pilot program study which are exploring sustainability and savings. If you have ideas or best practices to share, or want more information, contact Kara Angotti at the email below.

Kara Angotti is Green Schools Fellow, Center for Green Schools, U.S. Green Building Council Green Schools. She is on a three-year fellowship at NJSBA.