Schools, like most large organizations, create a lot of waste. So in 2002 the Toronto District School Board created EcoSchools, a program that aims to nurture eco-leaders, lessen the environmental impact of schools, and build ecologically responsible school communities. In 2005 with support of seven school boards, Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, and York University the program was adapted and expanded to become Ontario EcoSchools. Now with more than 1800 certified EcoSchools in the province there’s a pretty good chance your kids already attend one if you live in Ontario. We spoke with mom Elanor Waslander, then-executive director of Ontario EcoSchools, about the certification program (with levels bronze through platinum), and how parents can bring their own school communities together to join the provincial effort to green Ontario schools.
Can you explain how the program works?
It’s a school program that engages grades K-12, bringing the whole school community together to make change. We provide tools, resources, training, positivity, and invitations to participate in national and international campaigns like Earth Day and Earth hour. We use those things to motivate students and adults in the school community to focus on what makes a difference for them, how they can make change their community, and what the priorities are. We provide the scaffolding they need to be successful. And then there’s the feedback cycle. Schools are recognized and celebrated for their achievements — it’s no longer just the green team working diligently on recycling and doing waste audits, and all the really hard work that nobody sees. It’s really about the final celebration, letting them know “hey you did something amazing and we hope you continue next year”. Feedback from teachers tells us the framework we provide is a roadmap to taking action.
Looking at the map the schools are spread all over the province.
Yes! We started off in Southern Ontario back in 2005 with 100 schools certifying and grew from there. A lot of schools already take action in various ways, so we provide a network of support to continue that. Really it’s about them finding creative solutions to the issues and we help them think about that.
Are there any particular projects students have done that blew you away?
Far too many to mention. Each school has an eco team made up of students and adults. We don’t tell them how to do it, and the team could be as small as two or as big as a hundred, including subcommittees with targets across the year.
We give them the action or target. So we’ll ask how are the staff and students doing in terms of turning off the lights and monitors to reduce energy consumption? Then they decide how to approach it. One thing I felt was really smart was a high school in the Chatham-Kent area of Ontario created an eco app for your phone that monitors wetlands because they’re in an area where the wetlands have significant ecological value. That was a pretty unique project they undertook. Schools come up with cool things like having an energy hog — a little hog that sits on classroom desks when lights are on and nobody’s in the room. A class might come back from recess to find the hog in their room and say, “Oh no!” Then it’s their turn to find the next classroom that forgets and put the hog in their room. Schools come up with all kinds of fun things. We don’t really tell people what to do we just share the best practices.
You’ve been with the project for a long time, how satisfying is it to see it grow?
I’ve been working in Environmental Education for a long time, helping create programming that educates around environmental issues. But I was really craving something that could shift the culture. I often felt the things I was doing were just drops in the bucket and was always questioning their effectiveness. When I was fortunate enough to be hired as a staff member at EcoSchool’s I started to see how this works and addresses a lot of the things we need to do in order to shift things. This program is a really good mix of support, creativity, and permission to dream big. And the recognition/celebration cycle is so important. It’s been a fantastic professional journey for me to see this growth. I love seeing the excitement of people that stumble on this program because they see how it could make a difference.
Your son is four years old, how has this work changed for you since he was born?
It’s given me a deeper sense of connection to the mission and vision of the program. When I returned to EcoSchools after he was born, I started to see how important it was for students and young people to have hope. They need a way to affect change, especially when bombarded by information in media which isn’t always good news. It strengthens my passion for the project and its programs. This year has been especially eye-opening because I’m now a parent in an EcoSchool community so it’s interesting to see how much work and passion goes into the implementation of the program on the ground level. I know that after a really long day at work, packing a waste-free lunch is not nothing, and it’s given me a reality check about how we need to make these things easier and more accessible to more families. Having to practice these things and walk the talk brings home how important it is, but also how challenging it is, and I’ve been able to bring that back to the program.
How can people get their schools involved?
It’s a voluntary process. All schools need to do is register online. Parents can be key motivators — and the ones who register the school — but they need to seek school support first. They present the idea to the administrator or principal first to get their buy-in. The principal doesn’t need to be heavily involved they just need to approve of the program. Then ideally you want a couple of teachers to participate. But parents and parent councils can be really strong allies for transforming schools.
Do you think all schools can do this?
Yes, although there are challenges for some schools. We have a school in Balmertown Ontario who are fantastic — they move heaven and earth just to get recycling working. But they’re eight hours north of Thunder Bay — way, way out there. One of the most Northern and Western of Ontario schools, and they’re a platinum EcoSchool. They drag their recycling 800m to the curb through the snow, and they have a really efficient worm composting system. Everything is frozen for much of the year so they have to use worms or nothing breaks down. If they can do that then a lot of other schools can do something too.
Editor’s note: The role of executive director of Ontario EcoSchools was recently taken on by Lindsay Bunce.
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