Q&A with Phoebe Beierle, on sustainability on the front lines

How can your district create healthier working and learning environments in your schools? Phoebe Beierle, sustainability manager for Boston Public Schools and a former Center for Green Schools Fellow for the U.S. Green Building Council, can advise you from the trenches.

Beierle has led a number of sustainability and environmental education initiatives at Boston that not only improved efficiencies and saved the district money, but also connected students with green learning and leadership opportunities. Beierle’s biggest success so far at Boston has been the implementation of a single-stream (no-sort) recycling program, which is in place in all 130 buildings. The program has increased the district’s recycling rates threefold in just two years. ASBJ’s Margaret Suslick recently spoke to Beierle about what school leaders can do to promote sustainability. 

Is it important for school boards to worry about green schools?

Research shows that students who attend schools constructed with nontoxic materials, that provide excellent daylight and acoustics, are energy- and resource-efficient, and are inspiring, actually learn better. School boards make important decisions for their districts, and one easy decision that benefits both the bottom line as well as student performance is to design and build green schools. 

What are some sustainable best practices?

It is important for school boards to take a leadership role around sustainability by promoting, modeling, and celebrating its success. My suggestion as a first step is to form a green team with members of the school board, district administration, school staff, and the broader community. Establish what you are doing well and what you could improve. 

How can professional development help?

It’s critical that teachers, custodians, and school leaders receive training on what a green school means and how to have a positive impact on the health and efficiency of their building. The Green Classroom Professional Certificate program, developed by the Center for Green Schools, is a great place to start. This interactive, short online course shows teachers about greening the materials they bring into the classroom, how to save money by turning off electronics, how to prevent asthma triggers, etc. 

Tell us about your work with the Boston schools.

I tell people that I have the best job in the district, as every day I am working on a new project to help save the city money and/or bring hands-on learning opportunities to students. While I am focused on facilities and operations—where I manage our single-stream recycling, schoolyards, energy behavior change, and green building initiatives—I also lead our green team. Because sustainability doesn’t have a line item in our budget, over the past three years I’ve leveraged close to $1 million in grant funding, donated staff time, and reduced operating expenses. I encourage every district to consider making sustainability someone’s job—the benefits will be great. 

If you could make one green recommendation to school leaders, what would it be?

Educate yourself and empower your students. OK, I guess that’s two things, but they are connected. Successful green school programs require collaboration and teamwork among many stakeholders, but in every case the most impactful work happens when students are at the center—learning from their buildings, taking action and advocating for change, implementing projects, and tracking progress.