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Sustainable Schools in Chicago

By: Sophia W.

Photo from: PBC Chicago

Imagine if schools nationwide mitigated energy and water usage, cut back on fossil fuels used in transportation, and reduced waste heading to landfills. Well, in Chicago, there are several schools across the city that are going down this green path including the Latin School, Thomas J. Waters Elementary, and the Vaughn Occupational High School.

Some of the intricate ways these schools are mitigating their climate impact include composting, building vegetable gardens, installing green roofs and solar panels. Additionally, schools are cutting water usage in buildings by repairing water leaks and decreasing the amount of water used in food preparations. These steps inherently protect freshwater habitats and reduce energy needed to treat water. Lastly, green schools are narrowing their waste going to landfills by accurately disposing materials into the recycling stream and establishing compost programs.

To effectively measure sustainability levels in schools, the US Department of Education has identified three pillars. They must reduce environmental impact, increase the health and well-being of students, and increase environmental and sustainability literacy for all graduates.

Recently, the Green Schools Alliance has launched a high quality online platform called Sustainability Tracking Roadmap Tool (START), which assesses how environmentally innovative a school is through various metrics, while also providing comprehensive guidance to help schools reach their ecological goals.

With Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced levels, each school can be given a proper baseline in planning their sustainability journey. Some Chicago schools that have signed the program’s Sustainability Commitment Pledge include Lane Tech College Prep and the University of Chicago Laboratory School.

Photo from: Green Schools Alliance

Located in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, The Latin School of Chicago has embraced a classic vision on environmental sustainability through incorporating various environmental practices, policies, and operations for their K-12 school of nearly 1,155 students. The Latin School has been making efforts to be sustainable but the systemic sustainability program was not launched until 2007. The former Head of School Don Firke called for a new strategic plan that would promote environmental sustainability and thereafter, Latin established the Environmental Stewards Committee to guide this initiative. In 2009, the school created a policy called the Environmental Sustainability Statement that declared Latin would reduce its carbon footprint by using recyclable materials in their construction and renovation of facilities. Consequently, the school was awarded the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification by the U.S. Green Building Council in 2012. This award is one of the most widely used green building rating systems in the world and is a globally recognized symbol of sustainability achievement and leadership. Furthermore, during a period of construction, the school diverted 85% of the waste from heading to landfills. The school is also home to several eco-friendly innovations including the three green roofs, a bird-friendly wind turbine, and a solar hot-water heater. The school now generates 18 kW of renewable power and is a model example of a green school in Chicago. Another opportunity available to students include the online course called, Climate Change and Global Inequality. Before the pandemic, classes would go out on service outings and some of the volunteer opportunities were environmentally focused. However, the school only incorporates environmental education into its high school curriculum with one class: Ecology and Evolution.

Although these environmental accomplishments are a great feat, it is important to note that Latin is a private school that has the proper endowments necessary to fund such sustainable initiatives, whereas public schools across Chicago are not as properly funded and equipped with such resources.

Waters Elementary in Lincoln Square is a magnet public school recognized for its Fine and Performing Arts, Ecology, and Technology programs. The school currently serves over 600 students from different ethnicities, cultures, and economic levels. Waters was recognized as a Green Ribbon School in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Education. Former principal Titia Crespo mentioned that the award came as a surprise since the school itself did not initially set out to achieve this; the application was prepared by parent volunteers. Within the campus, there is an extensive garden with bountiful amounts of vegetables, herbs, and flowers that the neighbors in the community help to maintain. In 2002, the 8th-grade class collectively decided to remove the asphalt that made up the school's original playground which resulted in the creation of a beautiful space restored with native plants and a lawn for recreation. With Waters’ integrated focus on elements of a green school, it is quite apparent why the school was honored as one of the nation's first Green Ribbon Schools.

Photo from: The Chicago Real Estate Local

Another notable green school in Chicago is Vaughn Occupational High School, located in the city's northwest side in Portage Park. Vaughn High School’s faculty provide a remarkable educationally sustainable program for its student body of just over 200 with cognitive and developmental disabilities. The school itself was originally a phone company building and was repurposed and renovated with eco-friendly standards in mind. Additionally, the school is cleaned using only environmentally friendly products and has a mission to be completely zero-waste. Vaughn High School holds great pride in recycling and reusing the majority of the school’s waste. The school also recycles for the neighborhood community and creates paper to print postcards, greeting cards, and envelopes which are later then sold. Furthermore, the school has an advanced vermicomposting system that enables students to use the compost and sell it for profit at a local farmers market. Lastly, the school’s Culinary Arts Department teaches students to run the school’s café and restaurant which has been using the vegetables and herbs grown locally in the science department’s green house for the past eight years.

Now, you may be wondering, how can your school become more sustainable? Here are some proposals that you can make to your school or district to implement more environmental initiatives.

  • Transition to green cleaning products. These products are free from harmful chemicals and leave very little effects on the environment.

  • Start a compost program. Create a compost committee that is incharge of choosing the composting location and directing the disposal of the waste.

  • Using green materials in construction or renovations. If your school is planning on doing some construction work in the coming years, you can propose they use materials that are long-lasting such as HDPE (high-density polyethylene) because it is durable, recyclable, and sustainable.

  • Implement plants in the classrooms. Research has shown that placing plants in classrooms helps reduce dust and carbon dioxide levels while also preventing the growth of pollutants.

  • Consider going solar. A lot of schools and buildings across the world have made the transition to solar energy. With just a few panels, energy costs can be reduced while having the facility run on clean, renewable energy.

Work Cited:

“Chicago’s Green Schools | Inverness Associates.” Inverness Associates, Accessed 13 Mar. 2021.

“Escola Infantil Em Tóquio Foi Construída Em Torno de Um Jardim.” Casa Vogue, Accessed 13 Mar. 2021.

Goldbaum, Nathan. “Resolution for a CTU Green Schools Campaign.” Chicago Teachers Union, Chicago Teachers Union, 13 Dec. 2020,

Heming, Anisa. “What Is a Green School?” Center for Green Schools, The Center for Green Schools, 30 July 2017,

LEED. “What Is LEED? | U.S. Green Building Council.” LEED, Accessed 13 Mar. 2021.

PBC Chicago. “Waters Elementary School Annex & Renovations.” PBC Chicago, 19 Feb. 2021,

Rojas, Eric. “The Grounds at Thomas J. Waters School, Chicago.” The Chicago Real Estate Local, 13 Mar. 2021,


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