How Ontario Schools Are Nurturing EcoLeaders

growing strong leaders at ontario ecoschools

I was a new parent to the school system last year, and to be honest, I was not the involved parent I wanted to be (I blame my sleepless and demanding infant).

I’m never too tired to get excited about environmental initiatives, though, and I noticed quite a few at my daughter’s school – in the form of children’s art, gardens, litterless lunches, etc.

The main hall also proudly features EcoSchool Platinum plaques. When I looked into what this meant, I was thrilled to learn that our school receives the top level of EcoSchool certification!

An Interview With Ontario EcoSchools

I wanted to learn more about the program, and I’m excited to have been able to interview the folks at Ontario EcoSchools to share this great initiative with you too. As I come out of my sleep-deprived stupor this upcoming school year, I’m looking forward to getting more involved at my kid’s school, and I hope you will too!

What is Ontario EcoSchools?

Ontario EcoSchools is an environmental education and certification program. Our mission is to nurture environmental leaders, reduce the ecological impact of schools, and build environmentally responsible school communities.

ontario ecoschools

While certification is a large part of what we do, we also act as a learning hub for students, parents, teachers, and staff by offering in-person training, dynamic resources and best practices to help build a culture of environmentalism at school and home.

We also organize events like professional development workshops, Youth EcoSummits, Community Hubs, and online networks like social media, our newsletter, and blog.

What is your vision for schools across Ontario?

Our vision is Every School an EcoSchool. From individual behaviours to collective impact, we work towards a community of schools across Ontario in which all students and staff are engaged in environmental education and practices while developing the knowledge, skills, perspectives, and actions needed to be environmentally responsible citizens.

Our vision supports school communities to incorporate caring for and stewardship of the environment across every aspect of school life.

How does a school become an EcoSchool?

All publicly-funded schools can apply for the annual certification program for free. Registration begins in late September, an EcoReview happens in January, and finally, an online certification application is submitted by the end of  April.

The program is organized across six sections that together help a school incorporate environmental learning and action across all aspects of the school, from in-classroom learning to whole-school campaigns. These sections are: Teamwork and Leadership, Energy Conservation, Waste Minimization, School Ground Greening, Curriculum, and Environmental Stewardship.

Every School an EcoSchool

Achievements are assessed based on a provincial standard established by ten years of benchmarking, with an emphasis on student leadership and engagement.

We encourage schools new to the EcoSchools program to start small and build on their successes each year. You can get an idea of what the first year as an EcoSchool might look like in our Getting Started video below, and visit our Certify Now page for all the details.

How can children get involved?

“Small acts can have big impacts” is one of the taglines of Ontario EcoSchools. We believe that student-led changes – whether they take the shape of a Walk to School campaign or blogging to raise awareness about a local issue – are the cornerstone of a school-wide environmentalism culture.

Since the program extends from Kindergarten to Grade 12, there is room for student involvement for a range of ages, interests, and abilities; opportunities for student leadership are built into the certification process.

We encourage students who are keen on learning about and making a difference in the environment to join an existing EcoTeam or create one at their school.

ontario ecoschool ideas

Some examples:

  • A young student who is interested in spending time in a garden can get involved in the School Ground Greening section – from preparing seedlings, to learning about soil composition, to harvesting fruits and vegetables in the spring.
  • A middle school student might be interested in Energy Conservation practices and can work with their peers and a staff member to carry out a lighting and appliances audit.
  • A Grade 12 student who is thinking about a green career could design a school-wide Environmental Stewardship campaign to get valuable leadership and planning experience while making an impact beyond school walls.

nurturing eco leaders at Ontario ecoschools

During 2016-17, we are excited to launch a special theme year: “Climate Leadership: Students Taking Action.” Climate leadership is defined as the ways in which school communities can bring awareness to climate change by surfacing and sharing student perspectives on the local and global issues that matter to them.

Through resources like a Climate Change Action Kit, thematic webinars, and a COP22-related provincial contest, Ontario EcoSchools will facilitate deep learning, debate, and engagement around climate change in the classroom and beyond.

How can parents get involved?

One of the key elements of the program is building a strong EcoTeam (comprised of students, parents, teachers, and staff members) who are empowered with knowledge and resources to effect change in their school community. Keep up the momentum through the year with these tips.

As a parent, you can support the EcoTeam by:

  • attending monthly meetings;
  • supporting your child’s environmental learning (for example, by discussing environmental issues in the news or going for nature walks on the weekend);
  • supporting campaigns such as Waste-Free lunches;
  • taking part in Environmental Stewardship campaigns, such as I Walk/I Wheel, Earth Day/Week/Month, and National Sweater Day; and
  • integrating some of what your child learns at school at home and throughout summer months.

If your child’s school isn’t part of the Ontario EcoSchools program, you can work with your school administration, teachers, and other parents to get an EcoTeam together in September/October.

Small acts can have big impacts

Creating an EcoTeam is a good way to not only support your child’s involvement in environmental activities at school, but also to meet like-minded adults who can act as a supportive network for changing behaviours – like organizing a walking/rolling school bus instead of driving to school, or working together to water and weed a school garden over the summer.

Do you have resources to help talk to kids about being eco-friendly at home?

Our free Resource Library is a good place to start as many of the fact sheets and campaign kits provide tips on being more eco-friendly at home.

We also have a webinar series on themes such as active transportation and greening, which can help parents find ways to incorporate green practices at home, on the trip to school, etc.

creating an eco school

There are also a host of excellent environmental blogs and media outlets such as Alternatives Journal, Eco Canada, and Mother Nature Network, some of which invite students to write for them (like Green Student).

What's one thing every student can do this school year to help green their schools?

We have so many ideas! But one easy action that students (and parents) can take to make a positive environmental impact at school is to transition to Waste-Free Lunches, which you can read about in this recent article from Metro Toronto. One school we work with created a video to further explain their love of green lunches.

By encouraging students to make a difference in whichever areas they are passionate about, you provide them space to tailor their learning and action, thereby seeing how their unique interests can make positive changes in the environment.

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