Sustainability in Education: How Denver Public Schools are Pioneering a Green Revolution

Kids in a school year lined up with a teacher

(Credit: Denver Public Schools)

by | Mar 25, 2024

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Education is uniquely positioned to shape the future. Under the leadership of LeeAnn Kittle, Executive Director of Sustainability for the Denver Public School (DPS) System, the district is proving that education can be a powerful tool in battling climate change. To date, only about 100 school districts across the country have sustainability positions like Kittle’s.

DPS’ Forward Thinking Leader

Kittle’s approach to sustainability is innovative and inclusive. Upon joining the Denver school system in early 2020, Kittle found herself amidst a group of students from eight schools who were actively lobbying the school board to implement a climate action policy.

Despite the limitations imposed by her position within the district, Kittle offered her support to the students. She focused on empowering them by assisting in the development of essential skills such as organization and public speaking, aiming to enhance the effectiveness of their advocacy efforts. Rather than treating sustainability as a top-down initiative, Kittle believes in harnessing the power of the student’s active participation and has enlisted the help of roughly 90,000 kids currently enrolled in the school system. This belief has led to the launch of a project-based learning initiative, which rewards students for sustainability projects in their local schools.

Early this year, Denver Public Schools announced fourteen projects across the district were awarded funding through the Climate Champions Grant Program, which provides $225,000 for DPS students to implement climate action projects in their schools. Denver’s Climate Protection Fund funds the program in partnership with Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability, and Resiliency. 

Student-led efforts have successfully pushed the district towards adopting policies that reduce its carbon footprint. This approach to education not only equips the students with hands-on training in clean-energy jobs but also builds a sense of ownership, which even prompted the White House to recognize their efforts.

Example Projects

Under Kittle’s leadership, Denver public schools are advancing green initiatives such as electrifying its school bus fleet and implementing an ambitious climate action plan. Students at Northeast Early College have helped install and maintain a solar canopy the district and city partnered on to build over the parking lot at their high school. The canopy, a series of carports covered in solar panels, not only helps power the school but also lowers the utility bills of low-income families in the district through the sale of energy credits.

Their efforts extend beyond just school infrastructure. Currently, 68 schools in the district have active vegetable gardens yielding thousands of pounds of produce for local food banks, effectively creating a virtuous cycle of sustainability. Laura Schifter, a senior fellow with This Is Planet Ed., an initiative of the nonprofit Aspen Institute, highlights Kittle’s focus on concrete goals and student involvement. This initiative aims to encourage schools to take proactive steps in reducing their carbon footprints and seeks to research and share best practices for districts to implement in this endeavor.

Presidential Recognition

In 2022, Denver students championing climate action policy were honored with the President’s Environmental Youth Award. In June 2023, Vice President Kamala Harris visited the district and highlighted the accomplishments of its student climate activists.

During her 15-minute address, Harris commended the Climate Action Plan implemented by Denver Public Schools last year and the students responsible for its drafting. Described as one of the pioneering plans of its kind nationwide, it sets objectives to transition the district to 100% clean electricity by 2030, slash greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2050, and prioritize sustainability initiatives within schools and communities.

“In the face of a global crisis, they took action,” remarked Harris regarding the students who spearheaded the initiative. “This endeavor and its accomplishments serve as a beacon for young leaders across our nation, which is why I chose to visit here today.”

Understanding sustainability is more than just a buzzword; Kittle’s team has calculated the district’s greenhouse gas emissions and is working on strategies to reduce them. These measures have lessened the district’s environmental impacts and led to significant financial savings, with over $5.5 million saved through the various initiatives.

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