Educating for Sustainability at Marin Academy

How a "change of consciousness" around sustainability reverberated through one school's curriculum, student life, administration, and planning.

Educating for sustainability at Marin Academy

After months of planning, Marin Academy (MA), an independent high school in San Rafael, California, was nearly ready to complete a major construction project, including a new kitchen and dining facility.

Cafeterias at comparable schools had been researched. Architectural drawings were completed. The city planning department had finished its design review and approval. Then a group of students, faculty, and trustees, members of the school's "Eco-Council," reviewed the design and said, "That's not sustainable." And, at the eleventh hour, school officials and trustees literally went back to the drawing board for a new design.

This story is about much more than the redesign of a kitchen. It's about what Bodie Brizendine, MA's head of school, calls a "change of consciousness" around sustainability, which made the redesign decision possible and which reverberates through the school's curriculum, student life, governance, and long-term planning.

Marin Academy is a 35-year-old college prep school with a student body of 400 and a faculty of 56, located at the edge of downtown San Rafael, the county seat of Marin County, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. MA has a strong academic program, noted departments in the fine arts, music, and the other performing arts, and a tradition of experiential education. Most of its graduates go on to attend highly regarded four-year colleges and universities, including Stanford, Berkeley, and the Ivy League schools. MA is selective, highly sought-after. It has long-standing commitments to ethnic, cultural, and economic diversity; 20 percent of its students receive financial aid, and close to 25 percent are students of color.

During much of the change of consciousness that Brizendine describes, she and others conferred with the Center for Ecoliteracy (CEL), a Berkeley-based public foundation dedicated to education for sustainable living. CEL's counsel reflected 10 years of experience working with schools, based on a growing body of knowledge about how systems change. One key finding is that change, if it is to be long lasting, cannot simply be imposed on a system, such as a family, a school, or a school district. As people who have tried realize, systems resist change; that's how they preserve their identities and why they persist. But systems are also dynamic. "Every living system," writes systems theorist and CEL cofounder Fritjof Capra, "occasionally encounters points of instability, at which some of its structures break down and new structures, or new forms of behavior, emerge." This phenomenon, one of the hallmarks of life, is the basis of learning, evolution, and innovation.

And so, while change imposed on a system is often short-lived, it is possible to create conditions that help determine whether a system confronted with change will resist, collapse, or open itself to the emergence of creativity and innovation. The story of the sustainability initiative at Marin Academy demonstrates this process, and provides clues for leaders and other institutions seeking such transformation.

The immediate trigger for the change of consciousness and resulting innovation at Marin Academy was an observation by a new trustee, Mimi Buckley. According to Capra, the introduction of new information or perspectives, even a comment by a single person at the right time, may be amplified through the system's feedback loops and spread until enough people agree that, if it is true, they will no longer be able to go on as they did before. This is what happened at MA.

Mimi and her husband Peter have sent two sons and a daughter to MA. She agreed in 2002 to join the MA board of trustees and, with a background in architecture, to serve on its construction and design committee. At a meal for new trustees, she was asked a question typically directed at organizations' new board members: "Is there anything here that you think could be improved?" "I saw that all the things from lunch were being put directly into the garbage," she recalls. "There was no recycling. I said, 'I'd like to help the notion of sustainability at Marin Academy.' And Bodie, the head of the school, said, 'Wonderful! What do you want to do about it?'"

Mimi Buckley's identification of the issue as "sustainability" rather than as "recycling" moved the discussion to a higher level. And Bodie Brizendine's "Wonderful!" exemplifies the type of leadership that makes the difference between a new idea's being resisted and its sparking the emergence of creativity. A leader of this type, says Capra, creates a learning culture, encourages questioning, rewards innovation, and maintains a climate of warmth, mutual support, and trust. "There are moments of leadership where what you do is you just allow good things to happen," says Brizendine. Then later, she adds, the leader follows up to nourish those responses that emerge by making sure that they are financially sustainable and philosophically supported.

Peter Buckley, a cofounder and member of the Center for Ecoliteracy board of directors, suggested inviting Fritjof Capra and CEL executive director Zenobia Barlow to confer with Marin Academy about fostering education for sustainability at the school. They met with Brizendine and subsequently with board members, faculty, and students. The Buckleys also facilitated an invitation to another CEL board member, Oberlin professor David W. Orr, to address issues of sustainability at a major public lecture in honor of MA's founding board chair.

CEL has identified a number of questions an organization can ask itself to measure its readiness for innovation. Components of many of these dimensions were in place at MA, which helps to explain the success of its sustainability initiative. Among the questions: Will the proposed new initiative foster ecological knowledge and systems thinking? Is there evidence of strong leadership with a clear vision? Is there evidence that the initiative will have tangible and demonstrable impacts, leading to systemic change? Is there inherent potential for its becoming self-sustaining? Will it build on local knowledge of how ecosystems work, and demonstrate the cultural wisdom of a particular place? Is change understood within the context of the whole school? Is there a rich enough web of relationships to sustain the program? Does the work encourage a reverence for life and an appreciation of the natural world?

Marin Academy had a well-established outdoor education program, with frequent trips to natural areas. An annual minicourse program featured numerous one-week courses with environmental education and conservation components, incorporating backpacking, snow camping, sea kayaking, and habitat restoration work. The school sponsored a robust service learning program. A student, acting on his own, had restarted an abandoned school garden on campus; some generous parents arranged for the services of a master gardener to help expand the garden and develop a garden program for the whole school.

Shared leadership is a strong tradition at MA. The faculty has substantial autonomy. Meetings are lead by elected faculty representatives, and faculty members serve on the board of trustees. Students sit on the academic affairs committee with faculty department heads. Students lead all-school assemblies and direct a wide variety of clubs.

To this setting, the Center for Ecoliteracy brought the conviction, from its decade of experience with schools, that education for sustainability requires more than merely introducing one more program. It must pervade the school. Says Bodie Brizendine, "The Center really helped us understand that sustainability isn't just about solar panels, it isn't just about one garden, but it's an entire system of thinking. And that has moved our school forward."

The Eco-Council Is Born
In keeping with the recognition that change is rarely sustainable if it is imposed top-down, Barlow and Capra suggested that the new thrust had to emerge within the community. This fit a vision that Mimi Buckley had had, to create a campus-wide organization, building from an informal student group that had gathered itself around the garden. "Students want to be active," she says. "I wanted to organize it in some official way so that they would have some reason for looking at solar panels and asking how many reams of paper were being used, what was being recycled, and so on — all the things that they wanted to do so badly." And so was born the Eco-Council.

The Eco-Council started off slowly. "We had maybe eight kids and four or five faculty at the most," says Mimi Buckley. "Some weeks they'd come, and some weeks they didn't." She says that she "just kind of lit the match" for MA's sustainability efforts, but Bodie Brizendine says, "I can't overstate the significance of a trustee/educator like Mimi. She understood how the school worked, and she inspired a momentum among young people and faculty alike. It never came from above. And it is absolutely and increasingly the way we do things now."

Zenobia Barlow notes that the success of projects that lead to transformation often depends on a person who can nurture a web of relationships within the organization, "through patient persistence — and often lots of good food. I can't tell you how many meetings Mimi catered, for the folks who became the Eco-Council, with her ginger tea cauldron and organic apples. Her recipe for ginger tea ought be to part of this story."

Today the Eco-Council is the largest "club" on campus, with 60 participants and a dozen active faculty members. Significantly, trustees and parents participate regularly as well, so that the Council is an expression of the whole community. It has also become part of MA's institutional structure, initiating school-wide projects and helping to develop school policy. Brizendine supported the Eco-Council's achieving that status by attending early meetings herself and by asking important administrators, including the business manager and the service learning coordinator, to attend.

The Eco-Council's growing role is reflected in its statement of purpose, which draws some of its language from the writings of Fritjof Capra in Center for Ecoliteracy publications. The statement reads, in part:

Marin Academy's Eco-Council promotes a sustainable way of life within our school and neighboring communities. As we help to build and nurture our community and those around us, we encourage and engage in ecologically mindful practices that do not interfere with nature's inherent ability to sustain life.

… We function as a leadership council, striving to educate ourselves and our community in order to increase our knowledge and raise our consciousness regarding our interdependent relationships with nature. The Eco-Council provides an avenue for our community to address real problems through tangible experience in this place where we live, learn, work and play.

Eco-Council projects have included research and assessments of solar energy options for the school, developing incentives for reducing the number of single-occupant cars being driven to campus, recommending policies for the garden and the school food service, and devising opportunities for sustainability-related work. The Eco-Council also wants to make sustainable practice fun. Its EcoPirates Committee (whose motto is "ARRRR: Always Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rethink") sometimes dresses as pirates for school assemblies, promoting everything from reducing use of nonrenewables to battery recycling and checking the tire pressure of cars in the school parking lot. When Michael Pollan spoke recently on campus, the Eco-Council posted some of his articles online to help students prepare, and arranged discussions to supplement his talk.

Institutionalizing Innovation
The evolution of the Eco-Council from a gathering of student friends to a leadership council influencing school policy corresponds to a distinction Capra makes between "emergent structures" and "designed structures." Emergent structures are a system's informal alliances, friendships, and channels of communication, expressions of the organization's collective creativity. When they are not encouraged, the system becomes rigid, unable to adapt. Designed structures are an organization's formal components, which specify how it operates and governs itself. Without them, the organization loses the ability to function efficiently. Organizations need both kinds of structures. Often, those that sustain themselves over time continue to generate new emergent structures, some of which replace old designed structures that no longer serve the organization.

MA's growing commitment to sustainability was further institutionalized when the school adopted a new philosophy statement. "When I first mentioned it," says Mimi Buckley, "there were literally people on the board who said, 'What is sustainability?' Boards are primarily made up of people that have to know a lot about money, but they may not have not really thought about this side of things. Fritjof Capra's addressing the board was really good. He brought a weightiness to thinking about sustainability as an academic pursuit."

The new philosophy statement identifies seven interrelated practices that define the educational experience at Marin Academy. The very first of these reads:

Perspective – Developing social, environmental and global awareness that fosters an understanding of one's place in a sustainable world.

Encouraging faculty involvement proved to be another essential step. "We have learned from the literature on education and our experience working with schools that innovation usually becomes sustainable only when at least a third of the faculty become engaged and committed," says Zenobia Barlow. The passion and creativity of students are of course vital, as is the support of parents and administrators. But students are gone after a few years, and their parents often follow them. Individual administrators move on, while the faculty as a body provides the institutional consistency and continuity. When they embrace and take responsibility for change, it endures and becomes part of the way things are done.

The Center for Ecoliteracy offered an all-day workshop for 15 MA faculty members at the beginning of the 2005–2006 school year. Fritjof Capra, Zenobia Barlow, and other CEL educators presented the conceptual foundations for education for sustainable living. The MA faculty members brainstormed about applying these ideas at the school, filling easels with an array of possibilities, and agreed to continue meeting on a monthly basis as an "Ecoliteracy Group." Barlow and other CEL representatives participated in several of these meetings.

Faculty members are very busy and have many other responsibilities. One outcome of the sustainability discussions initiated by Bodie Brizendine and the Buckleys was agreement about the need for faculty leadership to weave the stands of the initiative and continually cultivate the network of relationships essential to innovation. These discussions led to the creation of the H.D. Thoreau Chair. The holder of the Thoreau Chair is a faculty member, appointed for three years, who is released from some other teaching responsibilities in order to take a leadership role working with faculty and students on sustainability issues.

Generous donors endowed the Thoreau Chair to guarantee that the position will remain part of MA's designed structure long after its creators are no longer part of the school. Says Brizendine, "The endowed chair not only serves the school in this advancement of the philosophical and educational value of sustainability, but it's a great thing for faculty. It gives the holder of the chair an incredible amount of professional development, and contributes to the retention of excellent teachers." Biology teacher Mark Stefanski, a 19-year veteran of the MA faculty who had been a key participant in development of the Ecoliteracy Group and the Eco-Council, was chosen as the first Thoreau Chair, beginning fall semester, 2006.

Integrating Sustainability into the Curriculum
Stefanski has presented at faculty meetings, met with individual teachers, and offered himself as a resource for exploring integration of sustainability and ecological mindfulness into the curriculum and collaboration across disciplines.

Sustainability emphases have begun appearing in a variety of places throughout the curriculum. All students in required freshman biology classes now work in the school garden. "In high school," says Stefanski, "we tend to be compartmentalized in our approach to the curriculum. We're trying here to move in the opposite direction — toward greater integration. The garden affords a great place to do that, and we are encouraging the use of the garden in multiple subject areas. In biology classes, we teach about the cycles of carbon and nitrogen through ecosystems. What better way to study those cycles than in the garden composting system? Every student in the class literally gets their hands dirty doing composting. The beauty of it is not just that they learn how to compost, but that they understand in a broad way why to compost."

Stefanski describes an MA freshman who had attended a middle school with a garden where students practiced composting, but hadn't achieved an understanding while there of the ecological significance of composting. Stefanski speculates that perhaps the student, while in middle school, had not yet reached a stage of cognitive development for this abstract level of understanding, and so composting was just another task to perform. "But high school students generally have the cognitive capacity to make larger connections, and this student can now articulate these connections. His understanding and ability to articulate certain complex ecological relationships emerged as a direct result of his experience working in the garden." When students graduate from MA, he adds, "it's not so much that we want them to go on to their next school or next job and say, 'Oh, we had a really cool school. We put solar panels on the roof. We had a garden and we composted,' but rather we want them to be able to express why they did these things, and why they're important." Members of the Eco-Council are developing presentations on composting for students, now juniors and seniors, who passed through the biology program before the garden/composting component was part of it.

A solar fountain that had previously been imagined for the entry to the school will be constructed instead at the garden entrance, where it will welcome people to the garden, be usable as a teaching tool, and serve as another symbol of curricular integration. "When teaching science, the connection between the leaves as solar receptors and the fountain's panels as receptors is an easy connection to make," says Stefanski. "The fountain may not be as visible from the street, but it's going to be visible within our community as teachers take students to the garden."

Presenting ecological concepts on which sustainability is based goes beyond science classes. Stefanski and an art teacher, Katharine Boyd, are working on a lesson in which students are challenged to draw in nature. Instead of utilizing a textbook that portrays the parts of a honeybee in separate illustrations, they are trying to help students see more holistically. Wouldn't it be more interesting, he asks, if students went to the garden and drew the insects and the plants not as taken apart, but in their environment. "What's the context within which these insects are living? And what's the context in which the plants are growing and the relationship between them?"

A new elective offered by the English Department, "Golden Gate," takes an interdisciplinary approach to the natural and human history and literature of the San Francisco Bay Area. The course looks at the environment, on the model of David Orr and Aldo Leopold, by attending closely, as the Eco-Council statement of purpose says, to "this place where we live, learn, work, and play." Instructor Joe Harvey incorporates presentations by other faculty members on topics such as the geology, history, and ecology of the region. "Learning how to think like a historian, to read literature, or to manage the scientific process," he says, "are really useful, but the most interesting problems and situations are going to draw from more than one mode of thinking, and we have the potential here to start to engage kids on those very meaningful questions that draw from their abilities in these different disciplines."

Students spend time exploring local habitat and local history, and considering how the sustainability of the natural and social worlds is woven together. So they ask both "Where does our water come from and where does it go?" and "What do race and equity and justice have to do with sustainability?"

Before taking this course, says junior Booker Riley, "I would not have thought of myself as being part of the biotic community, and how much impact I have on the place where I live." For their class project, Booker and a fellow student compared what people knew about the sources of food and the distance traveled by food available in San Rafael at Whole Foods, the local farmers' market, a supermarket chain, and the vendor supplying the school cafeteria. The students presented their findings to the Eco-Council. "I had never heard of Michael Pollan when I did that project," Booker says. "Then I read his book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, when he came to speak, and discovered that I had come to many of the same conclusions about the food system that he had. I was kind of proud of that."

Mark Stefanski is especially gratified when ecological concepts he's teaching, such as "emergent properties," turn up in unexpected places. "A graduating senior was presenting a project on musical composition along with a fellow student," he reports. "One had more jazz training, and the other had more classical training. He announced in front of the assembly, 'The two of us got together' — and he looked me right in the eye — 'and we tried to discover what properties would emerge.' I loved it."

Rethinking the Dining Facility
Many of the threads of this story — the importance of involving the whole community; the need for grassroots engagement combined with top-down endorsement; the place of strong and responsive leadership from administration, faculty, and board; the value of encouraging emergent structures as well as institutionalizing change by incorporating it into designed structures; the worth of a conceptual grounding that can be applied to changing circumstances; the catalyst role that can be played by third-party agents (called "mediating organizations" in educational literature) such as the Center for Ecoliteracy — manifest themselves in the process leading to the last-minute redesign of the dining facility.

The plans as first drawn up were based on research at comparable schools with similar numbers of students, space constraints, and open campuses, where students often go off-campus to eat. The most cost-effective plan appeared to be a kitchen that would heat and serve food prepared by an off-site vendor.

Mimi Buckley became aware of the plans, as a member of the design and construction committee, and saw an opportunity to further MA's commitment to sustainability. "We can actually shift the mentality of this school through the kitchen, in ways that will affect every other part of the curriculum," she said. "If we want to build towards the future identity of the school, the most significant alteration we can make is to have a true full-service kitchen where food, including vegetables we grow, is cooked, where local and organic food are offered, with guidelines based on sustainability."

The importance of board members' serving on the Eco-Council was underlined, as Mimi Buckley was able to share updates with both groups. Discussions also began within the faculty Ecoliteracy Group (many of whose members also served on the Eco-Council), with whom CEL food systems program officer Janet Brown had addressed sustainable food systems. "The awareness and understanding of the need for sustainable food program was growing within these groups," says Mark Stefanski, "and they were able to present their concerns to the board. I think this is probably the single most important accomplishment of the Eco-Council."

"We understood," says Bodie Brizendine, "as we got deeper and deeper into it, that it needed to be more than a symbol for the school, but actually a healthy working kitchen that is an educational tool." After many meetings and extended discussion, the board agreed to scrap the old plans and commission a redesign of the facility, even though that meant their needing to raise additional funding.

At the same time, a "Rethinking the Kitchen" subcommittee of the Eco-Council proposed guidelines, adopted by the administration, for an integrated and sustainable food service. They utilized several resources from the Center for Ecoliteracy website, including the Rethinking School Lunch Guide, the Model Wellness Policy Guide, and essays from the Center's Thinking outside the Lunchbox series. The statement of purpose for the new facility (renamed "the Café" to signify that it represents a new start) reads:

The purpose of Marin Academy's Café is to promote a healthy, sustainable relationship with food. Through the integration into the life of the school nutrition education, garden experiences, composting, and the purchase, preparation, and consumption of nutritious food, the MA Café, in partnership with the wider MA community, strives to help establish and sustain life-long healthy eating habits for every member of our community.

Along with specifications about nutritional quality, sourcing, eliminating harmful additives as much as possible, and policies ensuring that employees are paid a living wage and provided benefits, the guidelines mandate that "nutrition education, garden experiences, composting, and the purchase, preparation, and consumption of nutritious food are integrated into the curricular and co-curricular life of the school."

The Café, which will open in fall 2007, is a tangible symbol of the change in consciousness described by Bodie Brizendine. Were it not for the voices that were raised when they needed to be, she believes, "We probably would have made a substantial wrong turn. But I don't think that would happen any more now." She says that she "can't imagine" that future construction won't be according to green building standards.

In the fall of 2006, MA was one of 32 members of National Association of Independent Schools (out of a total membership of 1,300) cited for their environmental sustainability activity. Brizendine is leaving MA in the fall of 2007 to become head of Spence School in Manhattan. "I'm already finding little balconies that aren't being used, thinking, 'garden, garden,'" she says. Meanwhile, every candidate for the position of head at MA has been queried about his or her attitude toward sustainability. "We've really crossed a philosophical threshold," concludes Brizendine. "I just see us going deeper and deeper on these issues. It's not a side thing. Bit by bit, we're trying to really root it into existing structures, to integrate sustainability and systems thinking as a community of learners."


Mimi Buckley's Recipe for White Dragon's Breath Tea

Fill a big pot with two gallons of water.
Add four heaping cups of rinsed, sliced ginger root (it doesn't have to be peeled!)
Bring to a boil, and let simmer for 30 minutes.

Turn heat off, and let cool in pot for one hour.

Add two cups of Meyer lemon juice (approx. 8 lemons), unstrained.
Add 2–4 cups (according to your taste) lightly flavored honey (produced locally if possible).
Stir all ingredients thoroughly.
Strain mixture into containers. Can be kept refrigerated for several weeks.

Serve warm or cold, garnished with a fresh mint leaf.