Reflections from the 10th annual School District Sustainability Leaders Summit

Published on: 
Wednesday, May 27, 2020
Caroline Coster

The 2020 School District Sustainability Leaders Summit, held in March in Portland, Oregon, was marked by energized voices, action-oriented activities and excitement for sharing and learning with one another. This was the first time in my career that I was able to engage with K–12 leaders of sustainability programs in such an intimate setting.

Hailing from Nashville, Tennessee, I was eager to learn from other districts in the South, a region often overlooked and less showcased in the realm of environmental sustainability. The morning introductions of the attendees revealed the diversity of regions, positions, passions and expertise represented by all 75 sustainability leaders in the room.

The summit was organized into sessions highlighting specific topics, including social justice, green building, student engagement and curriculum. For each topic, a group of school district presenters would showcase their programs, successes, challenges or experiences in a succinct format. These sessions were incredibly informative and gave the rest of us a chance to see variations in approach.

Touring Grant High School at the Sustainability Leaders Summit

Touring Grant High School in Portland, Oregon.

The opening session, led by Lisa Kensler, “Positional Power to the Power of Influence and Influential Actions,” was the most profound to me. It opened my eyes to the skills and actions needed to be a successful leader, but most important, it encouraged us all to reflect on our leadership skills. Gaining support and participation for programs was the most common challenge shared by the presenters and summit attendees. The session taught effective techniques to connect and reach people through social and emotional learning to improve participation.

A session on social equity at the school district sustainability leaders summit

Attending a summit session on social justice.

A few additional highlights and key takeaways from the two-day summit:

  • Reflections: Woven throughout the two-day summit were opportunities to pause and reflect on our personal goals and achievements and to map out influential actions.
  • Social justice: We learned about the racial equity and social justice lens that Portland Public Schools (PPS) uses when making decisions and engaging the community. This presentation was especially eye-opening because the technique and approach PPS used to teach and practice social justice in conjunction with environmental sustainability isn’t common. It is, however, a topic that should be included in all our district-scale sustainability programs. I went home and researched further how to bring the approach to my school district.
  • Tour of Grant High School: This behind-the-scenes tour led by Mahlum Architects and the Portland Public Schools project team highlighted the sustainability components incorporated into the 300,000-square-foot renovation and expansion of the high school campus. They pointed out the success of the bike rack solar canopy; various reclaimed materials, such as old gym bleachers used as wall paneling; and creative and low-energy LED lighting systems and water conservation techniques.

I left Portland and the 10th annual summit filled with fresh ideas, motivated to try new approaches, and excited to have met new friends and partners to lead the way in K–12 environmental sustainability.

Learn more about the School District Sustainability Leaders Network