Colorado State University’s school sustainability guide named national model

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A Colorado State University institute’s set of guidelines for making schools more energy efficient through sustainable practices has been chosen as a national model by an arm of the U.S. Green Building Council.

And it grew out of a graduate student’s thesis.

The council’s Center for Green Schools has published “The Whole-School Sustainability Framework,” a collection of principles assembled by CSU’s Institute for the Built Environment, and is urging schools around the country to adopt its recommendations on sustainable practices.

Stephanie Barr, now a research associate for IBE, presented the findings of her master’s thesis on sustainability efforts at U.S. schools during the U.S. Green Building Council’s Greenbuild conference in 2011. The presentation caught the attention of the director of the Center for Green Schools, and “the center said they’d like us to develop it further and encourage schools and districts across the nation to use it,” said Brian Dunbar, executive director of the Institute for the Built Environment, part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.

“We were asked to take the academic research and make it a public guidebook,” Barr said.

Jennifer Cross, an associate professor of sociology and IBE’s director of research, had already examined the dynamics that allowed Rocky Mountain High School in the Poudre School District to cut its electricity use by 50 percent over a seven-year period, outperforming sister school Fossil Ridge, the first high school in the state to earn a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Silver rating from the council. She gained insight into how a custodian, teacher and student group helped change the culture of the school, and those findings and her other research on the Poudre School District’s organizational transformation in sustainability were built into the guidelines.

Users don’t need to have a LEED-certified building to carry out the sustainability principles outlined in the guidebook; Cross calls it a whole-systems approach that involves educational programs and organizational culture in addition to facilities.
It also serves as an opportunity to educate students.

“We hear stories of students going back to their parents and helping the home change, and student engagement in sustainability at school leads to great career options for them,” Dunbar said.

“A land-grant institution is a perfect place for green-schools guidance to come from,” Cross said. “We’re committed to not just producing knowledge and letting it sit on a shelf, but also getting it out into practice.”

“A graduate student’s thesis can lead to something bigger, like this,” Dunbar added. “Stephanie could have said she was done after it was finished, but it grew into a national model.”

Rachel Gutter, director of the Center for Green Schools, unveiled the guidebook at the Green Schools National Conference in March.

“We are thrilled to collaborate with the Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University to present to you a guiding framework that articulates the conditions and approach to advance successful whole-school sustainability efforts,” she wrote in the publication’s introduction. “Through years of focused study, the team at CSU has developed a research-based framework that supports lasting cultural shifts toward healthier, greener schools.”

The Center for Green Schools envisions the framework as a compass to help a school or district achieve recognition in the Green Ribbon School program, which was started by the center and the U.S. Department of Education in 2010 to award the top green schools and districts in each state annually. The center is providing the framework to schools across the country that are pursuing Green Ribbon status.

Dara Ward, energy and sustainability manager for the St. Vrain Valley School District in Longmont, has already adopted many of the principles outlined in the guidebook. She said IBE is helping the St. Vrain district carry out an energy conservation pilot program in a handful of schools to identify strengths and challenges.

“We have a lot of these components in place, but they need to be put into a framework to see how it all fits together,” Ward said of the principles. “This way we can identify the critical moving parts, how they interact, what gaps exist and the necessary steps to improve the system.”

The guidebook is available on the Center for Green Schools website at