K-12 Education (investigating the Ontario EcoSchool initiative)

1. What is the EcoSchools Initiative? How did it start and what does it wish to achieve?

The Ontario Ecoschool initiative was founded in 2002 by a group of educators who wished to address environmental issues in K-12 public education. A collection of seven school boards, York University, and the Toronto and Region Conservation authority came together to evolve the previous work done by the Toronto District School Board. This collection of schools and organizations worked to develop an environmental education program “that can be used province wide.”  The Ontario EcoSchool office is located in Toronto, ON.

Mr. RRRbit, the Greater Essex County District School Board’s EcoSchool amphibian ambassador!

The EcoSchool’s mission as an environmental education and certification program for grades K-12 is to help school communities develop ecological literacy and environmental practices and to become environmentally responsible citizens and to reduce the ecological footprint of schools. The goals of EcoSchools are to  help schools reduce their energy consumption, minimize their waste, green their school grounds and teach staff and students to become more ecologically literate.”  To achieve these goals, the EcoSchool Initiative offers a five-step process.

The purpose of the five-step process is to provide an organized and systematic way for schools to implement the program.

The process includes:

  1. Establish the EcoTeam (this is can be made up of teachers, principal, 2-3 students — see 5 step process for more information)
  2.  Conduct the EcoReview
  3.  Develop the Action Plan
  4.   Implement the Action Plan
  5.  Monitor and Evaluate Progress.

The program’s four components:

Ecological Literacy: The Ontario Ministry of Education defines this as “education about the environment, for the environment, and in the environment.” Teaching and learning in, about, and for the environment are powerful means to develop ecological literacy both in and outside of the classroom. To learn more about the Ontario EcoSchools commitment to Ecological literacy (click here).

Waste Minimization: Intentionally creating little to no waste in the classroom and lunchroom. One example comes from Roseland Elementary, where a faculty team member stated in a phone interview on April 25th, 2012, that her school greatly encourages the use of reusable water bottles and reusable containers. To learn more about the EcoSchool Initiative’s Waste Minimization resources (click here).

Energy Conservation: This includes but is not limited to turning off lights and computers and reporting leaky faucets asap! To learn more about the EcoSchool Initiative’s conservation resources (click here).

School Ground Greening: Based on a guide developed by Evergreen and the Toronto District School Board, this resource will help schools design for increased shade to protect students and staff from ultraviolet radiation (UVR) and to shade school buildings to save energy and make them more comfortable. To learn more about EcoSchools School Ground Greening (click here).


The Greater Essex County District School Board’s response to the Eco School initiative: The Greater Essex County District School Board is committed, through policy and practice, to being conscientious stewards of the environment. We joined the EcoSchools Environmental Stewardship program in 2006 and we were the first school board in the province to make it a required part of every school’s daily activity. This is a long-tem project, not merely an initiative to cut costs during a period of high energy prices.

EcoTeams are established annually in each school, made up of at least one administrator, teacher, student and custodian. It is this group’s responsibility to guide their school community in an effort to reduce, reuse and recycle.

 The program requires EcoTeams to focus on 2 specific goals:

Goal #1 is reducing energy consumption. EcoTeams conduct audits of energy usage in their building and formulate action plans to reduce the amount of water and electricity being used. In many cases just turning off lights and computers when not in use can have a dramatic impact.

Goal #2 is recycling, with many school EcoTeams setting up and maintaining programs to collect paper, plastic and metal, to keep it out of the garbage collection and, ultimately, the landfill.  The principle of Bellewood Elementary participated in this study and spoke about the significance of recycling for the school. He emphasized the importance of recycling and how it is not only good for society to be aware, but it is amazing to have this “paradigm shift” occurring in this day and age: “The kids are the next generation.”  Similarly, the Roseland Public School’s Eco Team member mentioned above also discussed her school’s commitment to recycling and limiting waste. She spoke with excitement about how teachers encourage kids to have reusable containers.  In addition to the surge of reusable containers, she mentioned that almost every kid at her school has been using a reusable water bottle.

The EcoTeam concept is a key aspect of the program.  As explained by the  EcoSchool Program Director (in a brief conversation held during research for this website), the reasoning behind the EcoTeam structure is that it gives students a feeling of responsibility and accountability to their school and community. The EcoSchool board has also created, and distributes for free, resources for curricula for teachers to incorporate into their lessons.  These lessons give a step-by-step approach for teachers in educating their students about environmental issues. The EcoSchool Initiative does an impressive job covering material for elementary education and secondary education (grades K-12).

Various lessons: Energy Conservation Learning Activities (Grades 1-8)Waste Minimization Learning Activities (Grades 1-8)Making Connections: Elementary learning activities in about and for the environmentThe Impacts of Climate ChangeDeveloping Active Citizenship Skills in Grade 10 Civics

2.  Critical Analysis

Lack of local case studies:

The Ontario EcoSchool Initiative gives a tremendous amount of information to teachers seeking to educate students about environmental issues in the world.  As a province-wide program, its influence is widely felt throughout Ontario, with many beneficial results.   Local issues, however, are not a priority of the Initiative: especially with regard to the topic of pollution and its effects, the program fails to engage, support, and encourage investigations of cases in Ontario, and more specifically in the communities in which the schools are located. In lesson 9 (“As Olympics near, Smog Blankets Beijing”) of the 20/20 Planner Toolkit for Grade 5 & 6, the discussion of smog was discussed by using the  2008 Olympics in Beijing  as the case study. For reasons that are no doubt complex, it seems the Ontario EcoSchool Initiative has chosen not to focus on the pollution in Ontario’s backyard.  One city close to Windsor that might have made for an especially salient case study is Sarnia (an article on Smog in Sarnia)  In contrast of Beijing, which is 6,600 miles away from Ontario, the city of Sarnia — home to Canada’s heaviest concentration of petrochemical plants and related facilities — is only about 100 miles away from the EcoSchool headquarters in Toronto.  In contrast to the valuable lessons Sarnia might bring in terms of promoting awareness of issues that are important to the province, the focus on Beijing fosters the perception that serious pollution issues are only to be found far away, on the other side of the world.  One can only speculate as to the reasoning behind this and similar decisions on the part of the EcoSchools board: perhaps they are reluctant to release information about local issues due to concerns of the potential political ramifications. 


A missing piece – environmental injustice:

Another topic missing from the Ontario EcoSchools resources/curricula is, arguably, one of the most prominent and important issues in the world-wide environmental movement today: environmental injustice. This term refers to the unequal distribution of environmental hazards, in which minority and low-income communities are disproportionately burdened by resource extraction (e.g., coal mining and oil drilling), industrial pollution, and toxic waste.  In Ontario, First Nations communities are especially vulnerable in this regard.  And once again, the Sarnia area provides a dramatic case study of these forces: the Aamjiwnaang reserve just south of the city is surrounded by the most heavily polluting petrochemical plants (and related facilities) in this region known as “Chemical Valley.”  (See Aaamjinwaang).  Inclusion of these kinds of local provincial cases would greatly enhance the power of the EcoSchools Intiative to engage students in civic involvement for the betterment of their communities.


The emphasis on recycling in schools:

The strong emphasis on recycling can be viewed as a weakness of the Intiative, as well.  Certainly it is crucial to reduce, reuse, and recycle in an increasingly threatened world environment. However, given the scope of the problems that Ontario and the rest of the world currently face regarding diminishing resources and increasing pollutants in the environment, recycling represents only a tiny part of the solution. This point is well demonstrated at 18:06 in the Story of Stuff.  Also, a point more specific to the context of a school-based program is that for young children, recycling can become such an automatic action that they may not even completely understand why they are doing it.  None of this is to disregard or downplay the importance of recycling; rather, the concern is that too much emphasis on this aspect of the situation results in too little attention being paid to some of the deeper issues, such as local case studies and environmental injustice issues. How can the Initiative fully reach its goal of creating “environmentally responsible citizens” if it chooses to not include these crucial pieces?

3. Closing comments

Although this review of the Ontario EcoSchool Initiative has been fairly critical, it should not be overlooked that they have done much great work. They not only make it a priority in their resources to get kids outside the school building, but they provide countless documents that give important information on environmental issues. With all of this being said, though, the fact remains that the program fails to acknowledge pollution issues within the province and engage students in analyzing them through classroom exercises and field trips. In addition, the Initiative puts a disproportionate emphasis on recycling – an activity that, while important, is quite limited in its ability to effect positive change.  And this is at the expense of even mentioning, let alone exploring, the important issues encompassed by the term “environmental injustice.”  If the EcoSchools Initiative were to maintain the benefits it currently offers, while substituting local cases for foreign ones, and shifting the focus of lesson plans from an emphasis on recycling to an emphasis on understanding and addressing environmental injustices, it would provide a formidable model for educators everywhere emulate.


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