How America’s Schools Are Going Green — and How Yours Can, Too


Independent schools are playing important leadership roles in creating more environmentally sustainable schools. That’s according to a 2015 analysis by Inverness Associates that sought to map the state of green schools nationally. Our firm surveyed more than 25,000 school principals in 2013 and 2014, approximately a fifth of the nation’s total. The response rates from three parallel surveys allow for statistically meaningful generalizations about the strengths, weakness, challenges, and opportunities all schools face.

Key Findings

Comparative analysis of public and private school responses revealed many similarities. For example, both public and private schools appear to be more focused on areas such as energy efficiency and waste management/recycling than on incorporating environmental education in the curriculum.
Significantly, however, independent schools appear to be more advanced in incorporating environmental education and sustainability in almost all categories measured.  The following are among the factors contributing to independent school leadership:
  • strong commitment from school heads faculty and students;
  • a governance model that allows for strategic changes in direction;
  • school mission or green mission statements that include sustainability;
  • adequate resources directed to green initiatives;
  • a culture of innovation; and
  • a sense of civic purpose.
Public schools are challenged by limited resources, state-mandated high-stakes testing, large-scale bureaucracy, and political sensitivity. Independent schools face their own challenges, however, and often do not work to achieve advantages of scale. Meanwhile, some public school districts, such as Virginia Beach, Virginia; Boulder, Colorado; and San Francisco, California, are achieving profound changes, especially in building green schools, healthy operations, and renewable energy.
green schools graphic 2.png

Detailed Findings

Here are some specific findings the surveys revealed:
  • Interest in environmental sustainability is higher in independent schools than public schools (42 percent vs. 29 percent in public schools are interested to a very great extent/great extent).


  • Compared with public schools, independent schools have a greater presence of green teams and green policies (54 percent and 48 percent, respectively, vs. 51 percent and 37 percent for public schools). But fewer independent schools have a sustainability coordinator (27 percent vs. 39 percent for public schools).


  • Two-thirds (64 percent) of public schools spend less than $1,000 a year on green activities, such as assembly speakers, field trips, and professional development. A third of independent schools (32 percent) report spending $10,000 or more.


  • Environmental concern and engaged faculty and students account for independent school success (80 percent and 76 percent, respectively). In public schools the principal’s role is relatively more important (60 percent vs. 55 percent).


  • Waste reduction as well as recycling and composting are well developed in many independent and public schools (93 percent vs. 81 percent). Independent schools lead the way in LEED buildings and with renewable energy (26 percent and 31 percent, respectively, vs. 11 percent and 15 percent for public schools).


  • The school garden movement and nutritious, local, organic food have caught on in independent schools and to a lesser degree in public schools (83 percent and 44 percent in independent schools, respectively vs. 57 percent and 19 percent in public schools).


  • The integration of environmental education across the curriculum is just beginning. Strikingly, 10 percent or fewer independent and private schools define environmental literacy, require environmental education of any kind, or assess its impact (8 percent, 7 percent, and 10 percent in independent schools, vs. 7 percent, 5 percent, and 9 percent in public schools).


  • An area where independent schools are especially strong is in integrating environmental education into the wider school program, through outdoor learning experiences (79 percent vs. 50 percent for public schools), service learning projects (73 percent vs. 41 percent), and using the campus as a learning laboratory (70 percent vs. 38 percent).


  • Public and private school principals alike report that their key challenges are lack of time, lack of funding, and inadequately trained personnel (68 percent, 73 percent, and 39 percent for public school principals vs. 70 percent, 64 percent, and 35 percent for private school principals). State mandates and teacher workload are challenges especially cited by public schools (54 percent and 73 percent).


Applying the Research

Here are specific steps all schools can take to strengthen their engagement with environmental education and sustainability:
  1. Provide board and head leadership and make sustainability a top priority.
  2. Benchmark your school’s performance using the Inverness Associates survey.
  3. Promote your successes on your website, in your marketing and admissions materials, and in the media.
  4. Measure your footprint using a carbon calculator.
  5. Quantify and publicize your annual savings.
  6. Adopt green operational policies, such as green purchasing plans and green cleaning materials.
  7. Define environmental literacy; for example, see the North American Association for Environmental Education.
  8. Incorporate environmental education across the curriculum.
  9. Assess students’ achievement as environmental stewards.
  10. Participate in the Green Ribbon Schools program, the national awards program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.
  11. Become a member of the Green Schools Alliance, one of the largest organizations devoted to environmentally sustainable schools.
  12. Join the National Green Schools National Network annual conference.
And remember, green schools offer a “triple bottom line.” They save money, improve health, and boost achievement.


The surveys were designed to assess sustainable schools as defined in Greening America’s Schools and Greening 2.0 (NAIS 2012 and 2013, respectively). In addition to being well organized, these schools share “five foundations.” The schools
  1. use resources efficiently;
  2. focus on healthy operations;
  3. offer an ecological curriculum;
  4. provide nutritional food that is local, seasonal, and healthy; and
  5. develop environmental stewards.
An initial 2013 survey of 1,879 independent school principals, supported by NAIS and 14 state and regional associations, received a 36 percent response rate from school heads in 46 states and Washington, D.C.  In 2014, the survey was expanded to 7,703 public schools in California, followed by a survey of 17,500 public schools in 12 representative states — Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Kansas, Wisconsin, Missouri, Kentucky, Florida, Virginia, Maryland, and Massachusetts.
Although the response rates were lower (7 percent and 6 percent) in the public school surveys, they still allow for generalizations that are valid and reliable. We should note that generalizations are based on the perceptions of the school principals. Copies of the survey reports are available at

15-1208-PaulChapman-sm.jpgPaul Chapman is executive director of Inverness Associates, an educational consulting group that promotes green schools that embrace environmental sustainability in their facilities, operations, and program. Previously, he served as head of school at the Head-Royce School (California).

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