A young Sylvia Mendez Elementary School student tells the Berkeley School Board to approve a sustainability plan because her class produces a big bag of waste daily. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

When a young girl was called up for public comment at a Berkeley School Board meeting last year, she approached the podium lugging a plastic bag of trash about the size of her body.

The discarded single-serving cereal boxes stuffed inside the bag were the products of just one morning’s breakfast in her classroom, the girl told the board.

The young student was among a number of attendees that evening who came to the meeting to promote a long-term sustainability plan for the district.

On Wednesday, the proposed plan will come before the board for a vote.

“Berkeley does a lot of really amazing and innovative efforts, but this is first time it’s looking at a strategic, comprehensive approach” to sustainability, said consultant Susan Silber. Silber has worked with BUSD on and off for years, and was brought on in November 2017 to help the district craft the plan.

The plan on Wednesday’s agenda deals with making BUSD transportation and facilities more ecological — with greener building materials and cleaning products, smart irrigation, electric school buses, bicycle racks, better-labeled compost bins and electric appliances — but also addresses what goes on inside those facilities.

“Our vision is that all students are environmentally literate and exposed to nature-based education, and educated about climate change solutions,” Silber said. “This generation is really the first generation to really feel the effects of climate change, and honestly they’re the last that can really do something about it.”

The proposed plan encourages the integration of environmental topics all academic subject areas, through lessons, projects and fields trips aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards. The plan says all professional development should include environmental issues, and that every middle and high school student should receive annual lessons on climate change. Younger kids would get an age-appropriate alternative.

“There’s lots of doom and gloom out there, and we really want to focus on the solutions,” Silber said. “We’re not going to teach a kindergartener about climate change. They’re not ready for alarming statistics, but can you get them excited about being outside?”

Students at John Muir Elementary sort for composting and recycling. Photo: Green Schools Initiative

The district is asking the board to approve $106,000 for the plan through June 2020, including $41,000 from the general fund and the rest from existing bond revenue and grants. The plan also lists potential additional funders, including private foundations and the city of Berkeley. BUSD is also beginning to craft a 2020 facilities bond measure, and the plan directs the writers to work the sustainability goals into the language.

Advocates of the plan also insist that by cutting down on waste and energy use, the district will ultimately save money.

Silber has already secured a grant for waste reduction, and that work began a while ago.

“We felt that waste reduction was the easiest for us to take on almost immediately, because it was something we’ve done in the recent past…and a lot of the infrastructure is still in place,” said BUSD Maintenance Manager Steve Collins, who worked on the plan with Silber, at a School Board meeting.

“There are very simple things we can do, for example teach students more about sorting,” Silber told Berkeleyside. “In the lunch room, some schools have started monitor programs, where students themselves are teaching others where the lunch goes.” The new grant funding will expand those and other efforts launched under the previous Green Schools Initiative, which Silber co-led in 2011-14. 

Some schools have gone further already. Rosa Parks Elementary has a “living schoolyard” with a pond and a pollinator garden. A classroom at Oxford has garnered attention for going “zero-waste.” At the same board meeting where a student brought in the unwieldy trash bag, another from Oxford Elementary presented a small glass jar that held, she said, the entirety of the waste produced by her peers that year.

There have been steps taken at the district level too, with the 2014 solar master plan outfitting seven schools with panels, and funds from Proposition 39 permitting the replacement of offending light bulbs. BUSD is celebrated for its healthy school lunch and “edible garden” programs. The sustainability plan also includes a “turn-it-off campaign,” or a push for student and teachers to unplug devices, which has saved other districts tens of thousands of dollars, according to Silber.

But despite the smattering of positive practices, schools are missing opportunities, according to proponents of the sustainability plan, to make environmental awareness the standard.

“I think we talked about climate change very briefly in freshman biology, but we didn’t talk about solutions,” said Sarah Blankespoor, a senior at Berkeley High.

Susan Silber, BUSD sustainability consultant (left), and Steve Collins, maintenance manager, present their work to the School Board in September 2018. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Blankespoor, who worked on the sustainability plan as a paid summer intern, has “been thinking about climate change and worried about it as long as I can remember.” She was on the “Green Team” at her middle school, which successfully installed compost bins in the cafeteria. But she couldn’t easily find an opportunity for similar work when she arrived at Berkeley High.

“There didn’t seem to be anything like that going on,” Blankespoor said. “I saw a lot of waste generated. Lots of people eat off-campus and bring waste back. It just seemed like students would throw stuff in nearest bin” — including an “ambiguous green, unlabeled bin” that she didn’t know was for bottles and cans until she was a junior.

Over the summer, Blankespoor’s job was to research green building and draft a related section of the plan.

“It’s hard to establish direct cause-and-effect, but there’s evidence to suggest green building and indoor air quality may improve student test scores and their ability to learn,” the student said. “I’ve observed that at Berkeley High, some of the buildings have very poor thermal regulation that makes it harder to focus.”

There are also unique opportunities at Berkeley High to include environmental careers in existing pre-professional programs, Silber noted.

The plan recommends the creation of a sustainability committee including local experts, keeping on a sustainability consultant, expanding teacher training, and forming new Green Teams among students and staff. Parent education is a piece of the plan too.

After an initial presentation in September, School Board members seemed receptive to the plan, but they only saw a loosely outlined version with no financial details.

“I think we should strive to be a leader in this area, and we’re not,” said Judy Appel.

Karen Hemphill said she supported waste reduction because “it’s an economic issue for the district…in addition to wanting to have human beings on this earth in 200 years.”

The final proposed plan is on Wednesday’s consent calendar, a package of items approved all at once without thorough discussion.

At the September meeting, board members sheepishly acknowledged they could improve their own sustainability practices as well, some admitting they’d thrown the compostable peel of a banana they’d eaten during a meeting break in a trash can.

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...