Community Spotlight: St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School

Sustainability Stewards: A Q&A with this Year’s Ellen Pickering Environmental Excellence Award Winner

Over the last decade, St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School (SSSAS) has gone above and beyond to incorporate sustainability into its building and transportation infrastructure as well as its curriculum. We caught up with SSSAS Director of Environmental Stewardship Brian Kane to find out more about their efforts. 

AlexRenew – How and why did sustainability become a focus for SSSAS? 

Brian – SSSAS is a JK-12 Episcopal Church school, so it is part of our mission and identity to take care of God’s creation and the people affected by our actions. The school’s sustainability efforts began in earnest in 2007 with an environmental audit and a commitment to reducing our carbon footprint. Since that time, we have increased our programs each year, and sustainability has become a strong part of the SSSAS culture and curriculum.  

AlexRenew – Can you tell me about your sustainability initiatives? 

Brian – Energy reduction is a huge part of our sustainability initiatives. Across all three of our campuses, we have reduced electricity consumption by 21% through a series of building performance projects. Since 2007, SSSAS has also reduced its total carbon emissions by 36%.

SSSAS began with system changes, like weatherproofing and insulation. We updated windows and doors wherever possible. We also integrated sustainability into our regular maintenance upgrades. When doing roof replacements, for instance, we made sure all roof surfaces were white to reflect the heat. Key to sustainability is thinking holistically about our buildings, transportation systems, and processes.  

To make students and the community aware of our energy and carbon emission reductions, we created a real-time energy dashboard that is available online and on hallway monitors at each campus. This lets people know, on a daily basis, how many kilowatt hours of energy we are consuming in each of our buildings. Students, faculty, and visitors can see how we are doing, and if there is an unusual spike in energy use, we can check on it. 

A real-time energy dashboard displayed in the Upper School corridor

AlexRenew – SSSAS also integrates sustainability into its curriculum. How do the students respond to the environmental lessons and hands-on activities? 

Brian – We’ve accomplished a lot with systems and buildings. We are now working to more fully integrate sustainability into our curriculum, not just science but in English, history, and art. We are working to make sustainability integral to student life, from junior kindergarten all the way through 12th grade by helping students understand their role in improving the school and community. In the Lower School, students develop a basis of knowledge as they learn to be environmental stewards. In the Middle and Upper Schools, students begin field studies where they visit the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries to see firsthand the cause and effect of human actions on ecosystems very close to them.

We found that the best way to teach sustainability is through hands-on methods and by having students go out into the field. This kind of learning is tangible.

We found that the best way to teach sustainability is through hands-on methods and by having students go out into the field. This kind of learning is tangible. The issues don’t strike home until the students have seen local waterways, ridden on a boat, and pulled things out of the river. These visits stay with them much longer than memorizing terms or looking at charts and graphs.

Another positive way SSSAS reinforces sustainability is through student-led activities. Fifth graders recently organized a “No Idling” campaign and a “Walk to School Wednesday” for Earth Day, which was very popular with the student body. The Upper School has a Green Leadership Council that helps students develop leadership skills. They become a voice for the student body and learn even more about the school’s sustainability operations.

As part of our broader outreach, SSSAS also hosts the annual Students for Sustainability Conference (S4S). The event, now in its ninth year, brings 250 regional students together for a day of environmental education and camaraderie.

AlexRenew – Is there a sustainability accomplishment that you are most proud of? 

Brian – This year, on Earth Day, the U.S. Department of Education recognized St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes Middle School as a 2016 Green Ribbon School. Only six private schools were selected this year, and SSSAS is the only one from Virginia, D.C., or Maryland. This is a significant accomplishment that recognizes our commitment to educate students about protecting our environment and to provide a healthful setting for all members of our community. 

AlexRenew – What advice would you give to other schools that would like to become more environmentally friendly? 

Brian – The two most important things are to do a good job of communicating intentions to the school community and to pick specific areas of focus. Sustainability has many parts, ranging from revegetation with pollinating plants, to smart commuting, to waste reduction. I recommend taking a focus area and really working toward supporting goals.

Getting everyone on the same page culturally and changing behavior takes time and patience. For us, it has been eight years, though we started seeing strong successes after three to four years. Remember to communicate your successes. This helps the community stay engaged and encouraged. 

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