The Next Peak

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Green Growth

For many years, sustainability at Thacher was primarily fueled by student energy. As the program evolves, can it remain student-centered?
by Natalie Selzer CdeP 2008

This piece originally appeared in the summer 2017 issue of Thacher magazine.


This past year,
Margaret Phipps ’19 and Béa Pierrepont ’18 had an idea: What if they could cut down on the number of “town runs” to Ojai—and the associated carbon emissions—by implementing a campus bikeshare program? It’s not entirely uncommon for kids to jog into town together as a way to get exercise and run errands at the same time. Could bikes make that even more appealing? The Sustainability Council—a panel of students, faculty, staff, and board members who strategize and collaborate on campus sustainability projects—agreed that the idea had legs and encouraged them to explore it further. When Margaret and Béa sent a survey to the rest of the student body in February to gauge interest, nearly 80 percent of the students were on board. This year, they’ll continue their research and, if everything checks out and the resources are there, begin the process of implementing it.

More and more, this has become a familiar story on campus. Students come up with an idea, assess and flesh it out with the help of the Sustainability Council, and then gather people who have the interest and the expertise to make it happen. Indeed, this process—intentional, collaborative, strategic, and student-driven—is beginning to be a hallmark of environmental sustainability at Thacher and a model for the sort of applied learning that the School is implementing across disciplines.

“I think that’s the main success of the sustainability program, that the students are involved at pretty much every stage,” said Sustainability Coordinator Juan Sánchez. “For example, with the bike share idea, Margaret and Béa are championing this. They’re planning this. The idea is that they have to figure it out, talk to the community—we go with the flow and then give them the support that they need along the way.”

Kurt Meyer, faculty advisor to the Environmental Action Committee (EAC), echoed this sentiment. “Part of the authenticity of what’s developed at the School in this domain is the real involvement of students,” he said. “It’s not a bunch of adults flipping switches and pulling levers and investing money and making awards happen. There’s some of that, because the scale on which we’ve improved required that, but all along the way, the kids have been involved. And the kids have been working hard. And the kids have been coming up with ideas. And the kids have been following through.”

In fact, from Mr. Meyer’s telling, the initiative, curiosity, and passion demonstrated by the students have remained some of the few constants as the environmental sustainability program has evolved. About ten years ago, when he first started getting involved, the EAC (championed by Brian Pidduck CdeP 1992 and some of his AP Environmental Science students as a way to turn classroom learnings into local action) was a fledgling organization and rumblings about developing a strategic framework for sustainability were just starting to reach a higher pitch. As energy continued to build, Mr. Meyer found himself managing a task force of students and faculty who, over the course of 18 months, developed a 25-page report on sustainability at Thacher as part of a wider strategic planning effort by the board of trustees and the administration.

Alas, the best-laid plans.... “That report kind of landed with a thud,” Mr. Meyer admitted. “In the interim, between then and just a few years ago, when we really started pumping some resources into sustainability, it was really the student effort and passion and interest and work that brought the School along.”

Despite the incredible energy from the student body, however, the lack of a more intentional, strategic framework could be felt. “Early on it was things like recycling, planting a tree, doing a little bit of Ojai Creek cleanup downtown, getting up at Assembly and making announcements about using less water,” Mr. Meyer explained. “It was a scattershot, high-interest, maybe low-impact, effort. There wasn’t a sense of a unified purpose.”

Today, you’d have a hard time taking a stroll around campus without stumbling upon a whole host of different environmental sustainability projects, often accompanied by students who are (maybe literally) hands-deep in helping out with some aspect of design, construction, or maintenance.

Stop by the Dining Hall for a chat with Director of Dining Services Richard Maxwell and you might discover that only organic milk, organic and free-range chicken, humanely raised eggs, and seafood from sustainable fisheries are on the menu; that, during peak growing season, 60 percent of our produce is sourced from local farms; and that our Dining Hall produces almost zero waste thanks to programs that funnel different types through our compost, recycling, and hog initiatives, along with a Chefs Against Hunger partnership that allows us to donate edible leftovers to food pantries and homeless shelters.

Take the dirt road out to Carpenter’s Orchard and you’ll probably find a couple of students delivering Dining Hall scraps to hungry hogs—just a snapshot of the 5,000 pounds of food waste that are redirected through the program every year. The students could tell you that, later in the term, the hogs will become food themselves. And that, yes, they will accompany the animals to the butcher’s.

While you’re there, it would be hard to miss the 2.5-acre photovoltaic solar array that went online last summer. The facility provides around 90 percent of the School’s electricity and six-figure savings to our annual electricity bill—savings that will rise even more now that the School has installed a battery system that allows us to avoid tapping into the electrical grid during the most expensive hours of the day.

Behind a certain grove of avocados you might stumble upon our six-bay composting facility, where nearly 1,600 tons of horse manure, Dining Hall waste, and green waste are processed every single year—a program that was piloted, in the words of Mr. Meyer, as a “set of wooden boxes that the kids built to test out composting formulas” before it developed into a major program.

Pop your head into a classroom and you could find yourself observing one of the more than 20 classes that integrate environmental sustainability into the curriculum in one form or another, from classes fully dedicated to the topic to courses that integrate sustainability concepts into certain units. Think mathematics problems that use data from campus solar or water catchment systems to demonstrate concepts, a Spanish class where students read articles regarding sustainable development in South America, or biology courses where students explore the real-life problem that the Asian Citrus Psyllid poses to local citrus growers.
    
And the list goes on—greywater from the dorm laundry facilities irrigating campus grounds, rainwater catchment facilities storing water for use in the Horse Program, freshmen learning about natural systems and environmental and ecological issues during their first visit to Golden Trout in the fall. Indeed, the sustainability program has evolved so much that the School received major recognition this year when it was named both a Green Achiever (the highest honor) by the California Green Ribbon Schools recognition program and was named a 2017 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School.

So what’s next? Quite a lot, according to those in the know, if we can continue to be serious about investing the necessary time and resources.

“I think that we have made a lot of the physical changes that we can on campus, and that has happened really rapidly,” said Mr. Sánchez. “Our next phase is really sustainability education. We began by envisioning a long-term program, developing goals, and creating a mission statement. That gave the School a framework to work from, as opposed to just very cool projects that the students were pushing but that we didn't have the resources to focus on. Once we demonstrated the educational potential of these efforts, the resources began to appear, and big time.”

Margaret Phipps is hatching a plan to turn Patton’s Cabin into a sustainability lab and outdoor classroom. Peyton FitzHugh ’18 participated in a conference this summer where students from schools around the world exchanged ideas and worked on real problems related to campus sustainability. She’s coming back with a number of new ideas under her belt and an increased sense of excitement and energy. Last year, then-seniors Liam Kirkpatrick and Peter Schmidt organized a sustainability conference on campus for students from around the Ojai Valley. Participants exchanged ideas, discussed challenges, and shared solutions with the aim of inspiring new initiatives for the future. The engine of ingenuity continues to run.

When asked how he’d like to see the sustainability program grow and evolve in the coming years, Mr. Meyer paused for a few moments. “I would like us to continue to support and strive to maintain the kind of student-centered focus we’ve had,” he said. “It’s important that we continue to feel like the emphasis is on the kids doing it for the School, the kids doing it for their School. We want to keep this sustainability program running very much like a classroom. I think that’s the way it’s been, and that’s what it should continue to be.”

Learn more about Thacher’s plan to ensure environmental sustainability.
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