Sustainable Classrooms

Sustaining sustainability programs

One of the most important keys to the continued success of the program was to give these two staff members the resources — including the release time and allowances — to perform their roles to the best of their ability.
A new guidebook produced by researchers at RMIT called Conversations on School-Community Learning Partnerships for Sustainability (A Guidebook) offers a practical manual for schools looking to set-up or expand sustainability programs, IE Journalist Michael Oliver writes. The book examines the pitfalls and advantages of sustainability programs using real life case studies.

The main finding of the book is that although the benefits of sustainability programs are well-documented, the majority are dependent on the work of a single staff member — dubbed a ‘champion teacher’. Succession plans are necessary for the long-term success of any sustainability program.

St Jude’s in Langwarrin, Victoria, was one of the schools used as a case study for the guidebook. It has run a sustainability program for more than 14 years, receiving a Five Star Sustainable School certification from the Frankston City Council in 2007.

Roderick Shaw was formerly the Sustainability Coordinator at St Jude’s and is now a Deputy Principal. He helped oversee transformation of the program from its small beginnings to the vibrant and multi-faceted program it is today.

Rod says the program’s importance to the school reflected the centrality of stewardship of the Earth within Catholic teaching. This centrality was emphasised in the call from the late John Paul II for the creation of an “ecological vocation”, and for the faithful to “devise programs for the protection of the environment and ensure that they are properly put into effect”.

“A huge amount of the success we have had depends on letting the kids have ownership of the program. The primary purpose is always to educate future sustainability leaders,” Rod says.

While the program aims to create sustainability-aware community leaders,
the results come in tangible and non-tangible, as well as immediate, delayed
and sustained, forms.

Just a few of these benefits include:

  • cost savings
  • improved buildings and grounds
  • enhanced reputation and attraction for enrolments
  • strengthened staff relationships and morale
  • improved parental relationships, and
  • improved student attendance and behaviour.

The savings that come with the reduction in energy and water use alone can be of considerable interest for any school wishing to pursue a sustainability program.

“During the [John] Howard era we received grants to install some rainwater tanks that we plumbed for use in our toilets, and a bank of solar panels. These measures had immediately improved the school’s bottom line — which is always good news for principals and administrators.

“We also achieved further cost reductions by changing the behaviour of students. Making some of the students ‘Power Rangers’ and putting them in leadership positions regarding energy usage has reduced power consumption by a considerable amount.

“In fact, the program has been close to self-funding at times, through the use of grants. However, grant applications can take considerable time.”

The champion teachers often undertook most of the work and handled the administration of the program in their own time.

“Establishing a succession plan was very important to continued success at the school,” Rod says.

“Now that I have moved on from the Sustainability Coordinator role, we have two staff members running the program — a teacher and a teachers aide working together.

“One of the most important keys to the continued success of the program was to give these two staff members the resources — including the release time and allowances — to perform their roles to the best of their ability.

“This is not to say that these two staff members are not going above and beyond to deliver these programs at the school. And it is unlikely the allowance and release time truly captures the amount of time and dedication given, but we are careful at the school not to deplete or depend solely on their good will.”

Many schools, including St Jude’s, have focused on embedding sustainability into the curriculum, rather than having it seen as an optional extracurricular activity for students at lunch-time or after school. While extra-curricular clubs aren’t necessarily less successful, there are some disadvantages. Students must choose between other outside school activities such as sport, and occasionally miss lessons so that they can do sustainability club activities.

“It is vital that we keep the program within the curriculum fresh,” Rod says. “A different facet of sustainability must be covered at each year level otherwise the kids and staff will turn off.”

Rod says some of the students at the school who perhaps in other environments would have been left behind have benefitted.

“It is often the not so socially connected kids who seem to get the most out of the program,” he says.

“These kids are in their element when they are pottering around the garden. It gives them a reason to come to school, and improves their abilities when they come back to the classroom.

“For that reason alone the program is invaluable.”

A copy of the guidebook Conversations on School-Community Learning Partnerships for Sustainability is available through the RMIT web site at