Environmental Sustainability Education

If we design an educational system with an intention that encourages environmental awareness and connection, then those are the results we will get.

Small Boarding School Conference sustainability presentation

The intention of sustainability education can be summed up with the term Ecological Literacy. Incorporating ecological literacy is an integral part of the Besant Hill School college preparatory program and educational process. We believe this program ensures our students will develop a critical understanding and appreciation of the natural systems that support life on Earth. An ecologically literate student is solution-oriented, and has a developing awareness of the ways in which we are all connected to the world around us, to each other, and to those who will come after us.

A Unique Boarding School Experience

Attending a boarding school in a beautiful California location with mountain vistas in every direction and a five-acre farm on campus, students have a unique opportunity to learn about and connect with their natural environment. Sustainability education engages us all in the active cultivation of a community ethic, an ethic that is committed to preserving and enriching our natural, social, and economic resources to meet our present needs, while ensuring that these resources will still be available to nourish and enrich future generations of our school community.

For our students to become positive change agents in the 21st century, they need to be informed. They need opportunities to engage in conversations about environmental issues. Environmental sustainability, like any skill, needs to be taught and learned, and our sustainability program at Besant Hill School is rooted deeply in the experiential philosophy of learning by practice: Integrated strategies of recycling in our dorms, and food waste composting in our dining commons offer our students an up-close consideration for our school waste stream. Our month-long participation in the Green Cup Challenge each year demonstrates that our daily choices in energy use significantly influence our monthly energy consumption. The seasonal harvest of fruits and vegetables cultivated on our land provides our entire community an intimate appreciation for the food system that sustains our school. Hosting the yearly Green Schools Alliance Regional Conference at Besant Hill School, and participating in the Student Climate and Conservation Congress create unique forums for the cultivation of peer leadership networks and collaborative action planning. It is the real-world applications of sustainable practices in action that most effectively stimulate a culture of shared observations, sincere reflections, and creative solutions.

A Tradition of Environmental Education

This is not a new concept for our school. Our willingness to embrace a culture of sustainability has emerged frequently in our history, and we will find it embedded in the original Mission Statement of the school: a document that encourages us to achieve our community objectives while maintaining “an appreciation for nature with respect, compassion and responsibility for all forms of life.”  Most recently, we have included ecological and environmental awareness as core attributes desired in our “Portrait of a Besant Hill School Graduate.

What has changed in the last several years is a nationwide shift in awareness for the importance of environmental awareness in education. We find ourselves, for example, now in alignment with the United Nations and the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) who have strongly encouraged all independent schools to actively utilize the decade between 2004 and 2015 to develop sustainability strategic plans and “green” practices within our schools. The underlying assumption behind this appeal reflects the assessment that our educational communities have a responsibility to provide a knowledge-based framework for our students to experientially understand and creatively address the environmental challenges that will likely occur within their lifetimes.

Strategies for the Future

As we move forward with our own strategies to create a sustainable Besant Hill School, we are very fortunate to have a network of support with hundreds of other independent day and boarding schools and public charter schools. Besant Hill School is a charter member of the NAIS supported Green Schools Alliance (GSA), a coalition of over 3000 independent schools who have pledged to implement sustainability curriculum and to reduce the release of greenhouse gases by 30% over the next 5 years. As California Regional Coordinators for the GSA, we are also in direct communication with many Western region schools that are networking together to share resources and experiences. Developing sustainable strategies is a unique experience for each of our schools, but it is also an effort made richer by the spirit of common purpose and collaboration.

Besant Hill School adopted a Sustainability Strategic Plan in 2008 designed as a system to combine our diverse sustainable strategies into one integrated plan (see the links below). Perhaps as important, however, is that our plan is also designed as a means to celebrate our achievements in a measurable way. Our strategic plan identifies our sustainable intentions, along with mechanisms for assessment, in the following areas:

  • inspiring energy and resource management
  • integrating sustainability into school curriculum
  • enhancing the natural environment of the school
  • cultivating community partnerships
  • enriching systems of administrative support

For more information on the BHS Sustainability Program please refer to the sidebar links for Green Schools Alliance Regional Conference, Bioneers, Student Climate and Conservation Congress, Meat-Free Friday, Green Cup Challenge, and Sustainable Agriculture

More About Our Sustainability Education Program

Regional Green Schools Alliance Conference

The Green Schools Alliance has members from nearly 8,000 public and private schools in 43 U.S. states and 57 countries, representing more than 5 million students and almost a billion square feet of buildings.

The Alliance is unique in supporting the school sustainability “champion” – the official or unofficial leader forging sustainable learning and solutions in the school community. These champions – include sustainability coordinators, students, principals and heads, faculty, facility managers, business officers, procurement professionals, and other administrators and staff.

As a charter member of the Green Schools Alliance, Besant Hill School has been honored to collaborate with the Green Schools Alliance including hosting the 2013 annual conference.

Hosting the 2013 Conference

Greetings All,

After the February 16, 2013 Regional Green Schools Alliance Conference I found myself jumping right back into the busy world of our continuing academic year here at Besant Hill School. Before too much time and life experience passes, however, I would like to take a moment to express our sincere gratitude and appreciation for the efforts made by each of you to join us and participate in the conference this year. A number of you have written to convey your appreciation for the way this conference offered the potential for fresh perspective, vision, connection, and relationship. Each year we seem to develop a richer and stronger understanding for the sustainability commitments and challenges of the school communities in our region.

We continued to work around a theme this year of “Inspiration and Action Through Collaboration:” Inspiration from others and collaboration with others is one of the critical ingredients to the mix, as we consider the important decisions necessary to integrate sustainability education and practices in an informed and conscientious way. Our students and faculty here at Besant Hill School were truly inspired by the opportunity to collaborate with each of you, and we look forward to strengthening our network of interaction.

In the near future we will be posting access to both Bob Oxenburgh’s and Rob Watson’s keynote presentations on the BHS 2013 conference website page, and on the Green Schools Alliance California Region website page (there are over 40 member schools in our region networked together through the GSA). We will also be posting the fruits that came out of the Regional Green Schools Roundtable and the Green Schools Sustainable Food Service Roundtable on the Conference and GSA sites as well.

For those of you able to join us this year: we look forward to enjoying your presence again next year…for those of you with the inevitable scheduling conflict that prevented you from participating in the conference this year, please keep your door open to participate in next year’s 6th Regional Green Schools Alliance Conference. We are already communicating with our regional schools for agenda and venue input for next year’s conference, and are searching for a calendar date that will allow for maximum participation. If you have suggestions to offer regarding agenda and calendar dates please do not hesitate to send them our way via email.

In the Spirit of Collaboration,

Tod Cossairt
Director of Sustainability
Besant Hill School

If we design an educational system with an intention that encourages environmental awareness and connection, then those are the results we will get. If by default we choose not to emphasize environmental awareness and connection, then just as surely our students will leave our schools without that learning, and without those values.

We so much enjoyed being part of your event, and would welcome the chance to work with Besant or other schools in your area if the opportunity arises in the future. Thank you for thinking of us and including us.

Karen Brown, Center for Ecoliteracy


Bioneers is a non-profit organization that highlights breakthrough solutions for restoring people and planet. Since 1990, Bioneers has served as a fertile hub of social and scientific innovators with nature-inspired approaches to the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges. We connect people with solutions through the acclaimed annual National Bioneers Conference, the Beaming Bioneers Network of community gatherings, and with our award winning multi-media products.

Besant Hill Students Annual Trek to Environmental Conference

In what has become one of our traditional annual October experiential excursions, and representing ten years of participation, each year students and faculty travel north to attend this inspiring conference.

Students have the privilege to hear from the overwhelming number of remarkable environmental scientists, professionals, and activists that attend and present at Bioneers.

Check it out!

Student Conservation Congress

Each year, Besant Hill students apply for and are selected to join 100 Student Fellows to participate in one of our country’s most prominent environmental youth leadership programs this summer. The Sc3 is a collaboration between the Green Schools Alliance and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and is hosted by the F&WS at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC), tucked away in a small Appalachian “holler” of restored forest and wetlands that extend down to the banks of the Potomac River in West Virginia.

Along with the Besant Hill School Director of Sustainability, students have a truly unique opportunity to interact with world-renowned naturalists, environmental activists, artists, documentarians, storytellers, and wildlife conservation experts who have committed their professional and personal lives to protecting our natural environment and cultivating environmental literacy.

It is an ongoing goal for our sustainability program to create opportunities for our students to cultivate sustainability leadership skills and ecological literacy by interacting with peers and inspirational adult mentors. The ability to practice sustainability is an essential component to learning sustainability. Throughout the year, our students created community presentations on their experiences at conferences as well as on recycling, energy use, local foods, and meat-free meals. The efforts of our students to become peer educators this year truly reflected the spirit, mission, and goals of the school’s sustainability programs.

The Sc3 is a “working” conference for student fellows. It is a conference where the conversation is directed specifically toward the youth, with a significant portion of the presentations and collaborative activities designed to inspire participating students to build networks of relationship with each other and to collaborate to develop sustainability action strategies to take back to their school communities.


Meet-Free Fridays

In support of a growing food service initiative for schools proposed by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Sc3 alumnus and BHS Green Student Leader Spencer Glazer, ’13, worked with students and staff to integrate a single meat-free day into the BHS dining service program.

For both environmental and health reasons, thousands of corporate cafeterias, restaurants, and school food services across the nation have embraced the idea of eliminating meals with meat one day each week in favor of well balanced vegetarian options. The New York Times quoted a July USDA interoffice newsletter as saying, “One simple way to reduce your environmental impact while dining at our cafeterias is to participate in the “Meatless Day” initiative.”

Download the PDF

A classic example of the positive impact a meatless meal can achieve may be easily seen if the meal not being eaten happens to be a typical quarter-pound hamburger. As much as many of us truly love a good hamburger, a single quarter-pounder alone contains 31% of a person’s recommended daily limit of saturated fat. The same quarter-pounder also requires about 6 lbs of livestock feed, 143 billion BTUs of fossil fuel energy, and over 52 gallons of water to produce.

Currently, student environmental leadership  in collaboration with our Director of Food Services, Juana Juarez, and with the support of the community, we continue the innovation of Spencer Glazer.

BHS has presently instituted Meat-Free Fridays each week as a day dedicated to appreciating the very real connection that exists between the food we eat and our personal health and the health of our environment.

Meat Free days usually begin during October and continue throughout the year, with some exceptions for holiday meals.

Green Cup Challenge

As many of you may recall, the six-ton African Elephant is my own unfailing and entirely unwitting symbolic participant in the yearly BHS Green Cup Challenge…read on to gain further insight.

by Tod Cossairt, Director of Sustainability

Each year our community engages in this four-week-long adventure in competitive sustainability.  The Challenge is really designed as an opportunity for us to be more mindful of the way we use electricity here at our school.  By collaborating together to increase our awareness and our energy efficiency, we reduced our energy consumption by over 25% in the six years we have participated in the Green Cup Challenge…the 300 participating GCC schools conserved over 1.5 Billion Watts (1.5 gigawatts) of electricity over the four week period just last year.

2.5 Million Lbs of CO2 Out of Our Atmosphere Last Year!

elephant.jpgAs every kilowatt-hour of electricity consumed in California adds over a pound of Greenhouse Gases into our atmosphere, the Challenge also translates into a very real and measurable exercise in the way our behavior can affect positive environmental change.  The combined efforts of the GCC kept 2.5 million lbs of CO2 out of our atmosphere last year… that’s over 1,250 tons…I must, of course, note here that this weight is equivalent to a herd of over 200 six-ton African Elephants for crying out loud!  Do keep in mind, also, that those numbers are the results of only 300 schools like ours who are committed to paying attention to the way we use energy over just a one month period… that’s a lot of African Elephants!

Turn it Off!  Have Fun!  Thank you!

Each year, as we go into the Challenge, I emphasize that the Green Cup Challenge should be a fun experience for our community…challenging, certainly, but fun.  I do believe that a certain amount of irreverent complaining and whining adds to the fun and I don’t take it personally.  I am just very appreciative to be a part of an educational community that has the understanding and willingness to participate in this type of unconventional learning experience. By turning off our computers and accessories at the end of the day; turning off our lights when we leave a room; and bundling up until it warms up on those cold mornings…we can save a lot of energy.  As my French translator is so fond of saying: “Ayons l’amusement…let us have fun.”