Eco Schools Pave the Way

Local school boards and students are singing the praises of environmental education…and the government is listening.

Eco Schools Pave the Way

Photo: Rose Goodall


It was the second last day of school and Grace, a Grade 2 student, was getting down to business. All year long, she and a group of classmates had been in charge of the school composting program, hauling buckets and making sure that no non-compostable material was included.

A running joke was that Grace was the boss, and that the rest of the group were her assistants. On this day, she was making up for the joke by carrying all of the buckets herself. Singlehandedly. All at once.

The laughter and enthusiasm were contagious.

Or they were until it was announced that the program was over for the year. And then there was a collective silence. A shared pout.

Grace was the first to break the silence. “Can’t we do it again tomorrow?” she asked wistfully.

A few others chimed in: “Can’t we do it again next year?”

In less than a month, Grace and her fellow students will get the opportunity to continue their daily fun. This time, however, they will do so as award winners.

Welcome to R. F. Downey Public School: a gold medal winning participant in Ontario Eco Schools and a pretty darned good place to be a kid.

R. F. Downey is one of six schools in the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board (KPRDSB) to attain Eco School status in the past year. While they are the first public school in the area to gain this award, there are a host of schools across the region hot on their heels.

The Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic District School Board (PVNCCDSB) is host to four Eco Schools, including three certified with gold medals.

Things get even more interesting in Durham, where, at last count, 28 schools in the Durham District School Board (DDSB) and 46 schools in the Durham Catholic District School Board (DCDSB) have received certification.

Tim Robins, assistant trustee of Facilities Services for DCDSB, gushes about the success. “We’re talking almost half the schools in our board,” he exclaims. “And it all stems from a huge amount of dedication from both staff and students. It’s not difficult to imagine every school in Durham being green.”

There is a buzz in Ontario educational circles these days, you see. And that buzz is all about Eco Schools.

Created in 2002 by a group of educational stakeholders, the program addresses environmental concerns in schools – both on the operational side and on the educational side. Adapting and building on ideas introduced by the Toronto School Board, the group created a holistic system of environmental programming that could be used by school boards across the province.

And local school boards were eager to join in.

The Eco Schools program starts with a Board-level creation of policies, standards, and guides to support schools in conserving energy, reducing waste, designing environmentally friendly school grounds, and providing learning opportunities for students and teachers.

On the building side of things, parents and students may notice subtle changes, such as timers for lights and monitors, or the removal of garbage cans in favour of recycling bins and compost collection buckets. They are even more apt to notice some of the bigger changes, such as schoolyard tree
plantings, learning gardens, or, in the case of East Northumberland Secondary School (ENSS), a wind turbine.

“We’re thrilled with the work of ENSS,” reports Chris Barker, manager of Energy and Environmental Services for KPRDSB. “A group of students wanted to reduce the school’s energy consumption and add energy to the grid. Seven years later, it became a reality. And now they are thinking of adding solar power to the mix.”

On the educational side of things, Eco Schools brings the environment into all aspects of the curriculum, not just the natural sciences.

“It starts from the beginning,” explains Catherine Mahler, program coordinator for Eco Schools Ontario. “From choosing environmentally themed books for beginning literacy, to calculating the number of trees needed to make a newspaper in math class.”

“It is really about changing attitudes and context,” she continues. “It is teaching teachers and parents that you can use the environment as a means of teaching just about any subject.”

While teachers have traditionally taught lessons from social, economic, historical, or geographical perspective, there is a new emphasis on using the environment as the backdrop for lessons.

“But not the environment in isolation,” continues Mahler, “but rather how society and the economy affect the environment, and vice versa. Or the links between geography and ecology.”

The concept is influencing the way Ontario policy makers look at education. Recently, the McGuinty government announced that all new changes to curriculum would include a basis in environmental education. Responding to a 2007 report by the Working Group on Environmental Education, the province vowed that all school boards would work towards sustainability. Eco Schools was cited as a major tool for shaping this change.

Mahler says that while the people behind the Eco Schools program understand the seriousness of issues such as climate change, they also understand that seriousness is not always the best route to take when educating young minds. “You have to keep things age-appropriate and fun,” she explains. “Rather than scaring grade school kids with facts and figures on climate change, you may, instead, have the entire class adopt a polar bear.”

Some of the biggest impacts come when learning opportunities and school physical resources mix. Barker gives a hint of things to come by giving me a sneak peek at a project currently in development: “Next year, you’ll see television monitors in the hallways of all of our secondary schools, each showing the water and utility use of the school in real time. And if that weren’t enough, the students can hop online and compare their school to others in the Board. Gaining Eco Schools status all of a sudden becomes a lot easier, and a lot more interesting.”

Judy Malfara, the communications officer for KPRDSB, is quick to sing the praises of the program. “The environment is a huge issue, difficult to wrap your head around,” she says. “Eco Schools gives people a place to start. It teaches you to look at things as a series of small changeable ideas, and rewards success.”

Robins echoes the sentiment. “Eco Schools has really raised awareness. From facilities to student programs, people have learned a lot.”

It is this success and the steps students take towards this success that is at the heart of Eco School activities. Malfara points out that students have shown great pride in the success of their school. “These students become more and more enthusiastic when their school is rewarded. It raises school spirit and really motivates the kids.”

The program teaches that individuals have choices, and that their actions have an impact on the school, the community, and the world around them. So the students take pride in their own individual actions, such as bringing litterless lunches or walking to school.

According to Mahler, this teaches both critical thinking skills and leadership. “When we teach a child that pouring a hazardous product down a drain is harmful, and explain the big picture connections between that drain, surface water, groundwater, our drinking water, and the habitat of plants, animals, fish, and other human beings, we are really teaching the child that all actions are far reaching. We are teaching that the world around us is made up of complex systems. We are also teaching that we can all take a leadership role in determining how humans interact with their environment.”

“It’s not just about the environment,” she explains, “but also about raising creative and nimble thinkers.”

In fact, Mahler hopes for a day when emphasis doesn’t have to be on the environment at all. “I’d love it to become a background issue, where sustainability becomes the norm in school planning and education. Where it becomes the standard way we run our schools.”

In a way, Mahler’s future is already becoming a reality. At R. F. Downey, Grace and her assistants are already assuming that composting is a common practice. And while they do celebrate the success of Eco School gold, they are also celebrating a job well done.


Getting Ready for Eco Schools

According to Catherine Mahler of Eco Schools the biggest advantages a parent can give a child is to provide model behaviour and support. “Eco School kids are taught the importance of the individual. For a child to succeed in this atmosphere, they need to see their parents acting as responsible individuals.” Not walking the walk at home can send mixed messages.

In order to prepare children for lessons on energy conservation, waste reduction, and greenspace enhancement, you may want to introduce some of these ideas in your home:

♻ Calculate household energy consumption using bills and, if available, a smart meter or Kill A Watt (available from many utility companies and libraries);
♻ Work together to create litterless lunches;
♻ Create a household energy savings plan that includes turning off lights, computers, etc.;
♻ Sort recycling with your child and make him or her a part of composting or vermicomposting;
♻ Bring kids with you to local farmgate sales and farmer’s markets. Ask lots of questions about where this local food comes from – many farmers are more than happy to share stories;
♻ Start a small children’s garden on your property, with kid friendly food, flowers and plants;
♻ Find and provide environmentally themed books.


♻ Eco Schools curriculum links and lesson plans can be found at
♻ The Durham Catholic School Board, a local leader in Eco Schools programming, has some very good information on its site, including presentations, action plans, and sample energy audits for schools. It will give you an idea of some of the themes and projects kids will be working on. Visit, and click on “Board Information” to find the Eco Schools section.
♻ Some fun environmental websites to help you and your kids get started:
The David Suzuki Nature Challenge for Kids:
Earth Day Canada EcoKids (be sure to check out the Teacher’s Resources sections for examples of what teachers are doing in class):
Our neighbours to the south have a wonderful educational site as well. Visit the Environmental Protection Agency’s kid’s site at

Author: Donald Fraser

Donald Fraser is a freelance writer for television, radio, and print publications, both locally and nationally. He is a consultant, and environmental educator with an emphasis on food issues.

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