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Dear Decaturish – Getting City Schools of Decatur to net-zero emissions

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Dear Decaturish – Getting City Schools of Decatur to net-zero emissions

Elizabeth Wilson School Support Center, City Schools of Decatur. Photo by Dean Hesse.

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Dear Decaturish,

We are two Decatur High School rising seniors and we‘ve recently started the Students for Net Zero initiative to encourage City Schools of Decatur to commit to getting to net-zero carbon emissions.

In our previous letter to Decaturish, we outlined various measures that could be adopted as goals for the CSD Strategic Plan. While the commitment to sustainability in the plan is an amazing development, it’s essential that we have tangible, environmentally-centered goals that will reflect positively on Decatur and provide a model for similar communities looking to take action.

Since coordinating with local university and high school sustainability-focused student groups and participating in Strategic Plan sessions, the most recent development in our path to sustainability for CSD was a trip to the 2023 Getting to Zero Forum in Minneapolis, MN. In addition to meeting brilliant advocates and attending informative panels, we were selected to present alongside Juan Guarin, Octavia Wolf, and Devin Cheek from the John Lewis Elementary project in a panel entitled “Catalyzing on Student Energy to Achieve Net Zero.” The group presentation discussed the value of student advocacy in building better environments for education, using the case studies of John Lewis Elementary and our local environmental activism. Moderated by the incredible Reilly Loveland Falvey from the New Buildings Institute, the panel description is as follows:

“Achieving a net zero school doesn’t have to be left to just the design team to be made a reality. These schools and district portfolios are designed to benefit students, and thus student interaction and empowerment are key to successful planning and building utilization. Sustainable, net zero schools can be used as a teaching tool to increase students’ knowledge both in and outside of their buildings. This session will highlight the dedicated stakeholders and student-led initiatives that helped develop curriculum, practices, and plans to ensure buildings and districts work towards a net zero future. You will hear from the design teams implementing programs to engage occupants and from students modeling the inspiration and leadership that develop a plan for net zero across a large urban district.”

For our movement in City Schools of Decatur, attending this conference was incredibly eye-opening; it exposed us to new possibilities for the future of our classrooms, lighting the path for the realistic implementation of green practices in CSD and nationwide. It greatly strengthened our drive to get CSD to net-zero carbon emissions and presented many of the solutions to problems we might face along the way. A few recommendations for CSD, informed by the forum, are included below.

School buildings – Various presentations highlighted the importance of using the school building as a teaching and learning tool. When students are able to live the reality of environmentally sustainable practices in their school life, they are much more likely to take these ideas and practices home, continuing them for life. If we encourage our district to prioritize things like sustainability and student wellbeing in our facilities (e.g. harnessing natural lighting) while incorporating these ideas into the curriculum, we can magnify CSD’s sustainability efforts and ensure Decatur students will be well-adjusted in a rapidly changing society.

School kitchens – On our path to net zero, a focus on school kitchens is vital. While investing in electric cooking may feel trivial when our current kitchen systems are functional, electric systems are much safer for our nutrition staff, students, and the environment. Gasses from combustion collect in kitchens and cafeterias, putting our health and the atmosphere at risk. In addition, the inefficiency of these combustion-based systems means that gas is wasted, and our nutrition staff is made uncomfortable. Electric equipment solves both of these problems at once, all while running cheaper after the initial investment and learning curve. Furthermore, this nearly 90% of wasted energy from gas cooking could be budgeted towards waste reduction and composting in our kitchens and cafeterias.

Untapped student interest – Students have the capacity to develop fun, competitive, and lasting strategies to reduce the carbon emissions of our schools, so student input should not be neglected. Helping students gain confidence in their voices sets the trajectory for lifelong environmental action, an effective education, and a career that gives back to the Decatur community. Designating student seats at the table is vital when our schools are being discussed, bringing creativity and fresh ideas. In future community planning sessions, CSD could include a set number of student seats, just like they include set numbers of staff seats.

Electricity and energy efficiency – Increased energy efficiency measures reduce CO2 emissions and drastically cut operating costs, benefits multiplied when combined with solar. Beacon Hill Middle School already has some solar, and we support its expansion to other CSD schools and facilities.

Electric buses could also greatly reduce CSDs carbon emissions, and CSD has already applied for the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program, and although we haven’t been awarded funding, we believe that CSD should continue applying for future funding rounds and under similar grant programs.

In a community with such a massive focus on equity, it would benefit us to examine how the concept of equity applies to environmental sustainability in our district. Climate change impacts low-income communities disproportionately, so Decatur should be taking a stand to acknowledge the future of every student who calls it home by incorporating environmental sustainability in education for all. We need CSD to commit to net-zero carbon emissions and long-term environmentally sustainable practices, for the good of CSD, Decatur, and the global community.

We plan on bringing these issues to the school board during a community input session early next school year. We also plan on working more closely over the next school year with other local environmental action groups like Sunrise Decatur. If you’d be interested in joining or helping with our effort, please contact us at [email protected].

— Jay Sandler and Gordon Lichtstein

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