From school supplies to packaged lunches to electricity use, the school system can have a serious impact on our environment but the Ontario EcoSchools program is proving that it doesn’t have to.

Ontario EcoSchools is a program that aims to inspire environmental leadership in students and reduce the environmental impact of schools through curriculum-connected lesson plans, student-focused campaigns and other activities that are built into classroom learning and aligned with school facilities and operations. The program is engaged at every level of the school system—students, teachers, parents, school boards and others in the community—to address environmental issues in the school system.

EcoSchools was developed by the Toronto District School Board in 2002. In 2005, seven other school boards, York University and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority adapted the EcoSchools program and expanded it across the province to become Ontario EcoSchools. From there, the program grew from 108 certified schools in 2005 to 1,720 schools in 2015.

To become certified, schools must build an EcoTeam of staff and students, register online, conduct an initial review of waste and energy use and input results online, take steps to plan environmental campaigns and classroom activities, engage the school community to implement these campaigns and activities, take time to reflect on the campaigns and identify ways to improve, submit everything with your application online.

Today, the Ontario EcoSchools program has been adopted by 1,839 schools, from 56 school boards and reaches more than 850,000 students, from kindergarten through grade twelve, across Ontario each year. One of these school is Chris Hadfield Public School in Milton, lead by teacher, Lisa Turbitt. When the school first opened, Lisa Turbitt and another teacher, Erin Walsh, worked together to build a community food garden at the school.

“The community garden provided kids with leadership opportunities in non-academic or non-athletic ways and was amazing,” Lisa says.

Eventually, Erin left to open another school and Lisa took up the torch as leader of the EcoTeam. When Erin left, everyone worried that no one person would be able to replace her. And they were right—no one person did replace her. Instead, more and more students and staff members at Chris Hadfield Public School stepped up and shifted the culture within the community.

“Their involvement has been so empowering,” Lisa says. “It’s an opportunity for the kids to see that what they’re doing, what they’re saying and how they’re involved matters.”

The community food garden at the school has continued to thrive and grow but there have been a number of new initiatives, activities, events and campaigns at the school. There was the Plastic Bag Grab, where plastic bags were collected and then turned into plastic benches and decking. (They actually collected 8,000 fewer bags in the second year than they did in the first year, which means that the school community was using fewer plastic bags!) They have taken part in energy drills, where they tried to use as little energy as possible for one day, and energy diets, where they make efforts to reduce the amount of energy used in the classrooms, including components of outdoor learning or learning without energy consumption. There was a Walk to School Day, where staff and students walked to school—they even closed the parking lot for the day to encourage those who live far from the school to walk some of the way. They also held Take A Hike, where the students went hiking in the woodlot near the school. They have held events for Earth Hour and Earth Day, held EcoTours at other schools, taken part in the EcoAction Challenge and so much more.

The school even did a waste audit and found that they had a waste diversion rate of 82 percent. In order to reduce their waste, the students encouraged others within the school to bring waste-free lunches worked to promote better sorting of garbage, recycling and compost. The school even asked their community partners to be mindful of the waste that they generate and the ripple effect has been profound. The parents have started purchasing compostable cutlery for school events, the after-school program has started serving snacks that don’t come wrapped in plastic and the lunch lady even served an eco-friendly lunch on Earth Day. Today, their waste diversion rate is 96 percent.

And the students have started looking to reduce waste outside of the classroom and within their communities. They reached out to community to collect fabric from things like tablecloths and bed sheets and used it to make reusable gift bags. They also collected holiday cards and used them to make gift tags, which they then sold to create awareness and generate money for other projects.

“To see some of my kids, who maybe weren’t the most involved, become so passionate about the environment, has been amazing,” Lisa says. One of their students, who Lisa says could have gone on to do anything she wanted, event went on to study environmental science.

The ripple effect of the program has reached so many students in the school and it has started to reach other students in other schools too. Chris Hadfield Public School has reached a Platinum certification as an Ontario EcoSchool, which means that they sometimes go to other schools and mentor the teachers and students, so that they too can become EcoSchools.

“Mentoring the other schools gives the kids that environmental stewardship not only within our school but other schools and the rest of the community.”

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Last modified: January 25, 2018

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