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School Districts Prioritize Sustainability and Climate Education

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Special thanks to Victoria Rydberg-Nania, Environmental Education and Service Learning Consultant, for her work and for this article.

This fall, students in the rural Palmyra-Eagle Area School District and 14 other districts are having quieter rides to school thanks to new electric buses funded by a grant through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. This move is one of many that school districts across the state are making to conserve and protect Wisconsin’s natural resources while saving money and creating healthier environments for school communities.

Wisconsin has a long and proud tradition of enjoying and conserving natural resources while recognizing that the health of the state’s economy and people is inextricably bound to the health of the environment. Districts across the state are taking an active role in continuing this legacy through sustainability initiatives and climate education.

In March of 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic began impacting Wisconsin schools, the state’s largest school district became the first to pass a resolution designed to bring attention to climate change and develop an action plan for the district. Milwaukee Public Schools’ resolution acknowledges that schools should demonstrate leadership in modeling to students climate-conscious and environmentally friendly practices.

As part of this resolution, a Climate Justice Curriculum Advisory Committee and a District Sustainability Team were created. This resolution formalized and expanded support for green initiatives in MPS, including establishing a climate justice instructional coach staff position to support classroom educators.

In an effort to protect the waters of Lake Michigan, MPS has been partnering with the non-profit Reflo for almost a decade to redevelop schoolyards to reduce stormwater runoff and provide outdoor learning opportunities for students. This past summer, Bryant Elementary School’s outdoor classroom was unveiled. This is just one of 134 outdoor classrooms being constructed or enhanced across the district, funded through federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds.

Sustainability efforts are not limited to the southeast part of the state. Along the Mississippi River in La Crosse, Summit Environmental School is creating an outdoor solar classroom in partnership with Solar on La Crosse Schools—or SOLS for short. The proposed classroom will be a wood framed structure shaped like a canopy.

A couple of hours north, Eau Claire County recently awarded grants to assist the county’s K-12 schools to establish or improve upon food waste diversion efforts and education about food waste and composting. The Eau Claire Area School District was one of the first back in 2019 to adopt a resolution “to establish goals on sustainability, renewable energy, and carbon neutrality.” Augusta School District, also in Eau Claire County, was one of the schools awarded funding for clean transportation.

Nearby, the School District of River Falls has a long standing partnership with the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, City of River Falls, School District of River Falls, and Chippewa Valley Technical College to advance actions for a more sustainable community. River Falls was one of the first districts to widely implement the online game Cool Choices in Green & Healthy Schools to encourage sustainable actions among students and staff.

Sustainability projects are making their way across the great Northwoods as well. The Northland Pines school district has its third solar panel project located at St. Germain Elementary and Montessori Learning Center site. There are also solar panels at the Eagle River school campus and the Land O Lakes school.

From policy to education and clean transportation to renewable energy, Wisconsin school districts are working to create a more sustainable world for future generations. In many places, students are leading the way.

Students Lead the Way

Youth across the state are demonstrating passion for issues around sustainability and climate education. Student-led efforts have gained traction in the past few years.

In Sheboygan, a South High School senior is starting a local action team for Wisconsin’s branch of Action for the Climate Emergency, or ACE, a national organization that supports high school and college students to take action. 

At Walden III School in the Racine Unified School District, students are leading an effort for a zero emissions school by implementing solar panels, planting trees, and growing plants using hydroponic methods.

Hundreds of pounds of food are being diverted from the waste stream through Compromise Compost, a new small business run by students in North Fond du Lac that uses a biodigester to convert food waste to renewable energy.

In 2021, students in Middleton Cross Plains Area School District persuaded the school board to pass their resolution “To address Global Warming through Clean Energy, Waste Reduction, Sustainable Choices, and Environmental Education” which calls for goals to meet 100% of all district operations energy needs with renewable energy by 2035. Students in this area also organized to form the Dane County Youth Environmental Committee and have established an annual Dane County High School Climate Action Conference.

Opportunities like the Green Team Mini Grants from KEEP—Wisconsin’s K-12 Energy Education Programs often provide the catalyst for such initiatives.