Schools and Sustainability: A Life Agenda

An Interview with Timothy Baird

Timothy Baird, Ed.D. is the superintendent of the Encinitas Union School District and a member of the state’s Environmental Literacy Steering Committee. His district-wide efforts to implement sustainable practices and cultivate environmental stewardship have received statewide and national recognition, including a Green Ribbon District award from the U.S. Department of Education.

When you started your career, did you know that you would be focusing on sustainability?

I do believe now, and probably have for some time, that this is the education issue, and the economic issue and the political issue of our day.

As an educator, as a teacher, as a principal, as a superintendent both here and in other districts, it was probably always part of some of the things I did, but it really went into much more focus when I was the superintendent of Ojai Unified School District up near Santa Barbara.

When An Inconvenient Truth came out in 2006, I had a friend who got very excited. He said, “We have to do something bigger than just the school district.” He dragged me along and we formed the Ojai Valley Green Coalition. It’s still going strong today, I’m pleased to say.

We got the group together and got various people throughout the community and the schools involved. Then he got busy, and suddenly I found myself running the organization and putting up chairs for all the events. This brought people together from all over the community who had a deep passion for what was going on in the environment.

We started focusing on how we could cause that little community of Ojai to be thinking about these bigger issues, and from that I started seeing more ways that I could impact what was happening within the school district. By the time I came to Encinitas in 2009, this was somewhat hardwired into who I was and what I did.

When I arrived here I was able to help organize the energy that was there, but not necessarily making the difference that it wanted to make. We had passionate parents, students, teachers, and support staff throughout the district that were environmentalists. There were some interesting things happening in certain classrooms, in some schools, but it wasn’t cohesive or coordinated.

I think was able to bring focus because of my background helping to run the Ojai Valley Green Coalition and the work that we started in the Ojai Unified School District.


The district’s Board of Trustees is very much behind this work. How important is that for you?

Having board support for this kind of work is critical. They are the drivers of policy and budget, and if your board and superintendent were not in sync around those important issues, things won’t get done. It is incredibly important that they have common beliefs around this work, that they see the value of the time and money that we put into environmental stewardship.

Environmental issues are one of the best tools in the world to engage students in their work, get then excited, and to serve as a teaching vehicle for all of the other things we need to do. They see that, and they also see the importance of this focus to our community, to our district and to who we are as a school district.


What are some of the things that you have implemented since arrived in Encinitas that you are really proud of, that have been especially effective or innovative?

One of the things I’m very proud of are systems changes that we’ve made. I’ll come back to that. There are educational changes that we have made that address how we get kids involved in the work which I really am excited. Then, ultimately, when you have a system and have the educational components in place, it changes how people think about the environment, how people think about the work we do, and how people think about what’s important.

One of the first system changes that we started with was getting interested parties together around the concept and forming a district-wide green team. That was critical, because it brought some of the people that are most passionate about this together. These are teachers. These are parents. Some of the board members at the time started attending the meetings.

This committee really came together. I said, “This isn’t going to be about five years of talk and then we create a hundred-page plan, and then we all go our separate ways. Let’s get something done.”

We started with waste management and really made a huge difference We improved our recycling at all nine campuses, and we did that fairly quickly and fairly inexpensively. We cut our waste costs by $35,000, as I recall. That led to other systems changes.

In 2010, we passed a bond. We used a lot of the money from the bond to environmentally upgrade our schools. All schools now have solar panels. They have solatubes for getting natural day lighting into the classrooms. We do water harvesting. We have hydration stations.

We have chemical-free cleaning, and we’ve cut the use of pesticides. We’ve done a number of things just by taking things apart and saying, “Okay, what do we do about this? How do we create more students walking and biking to schools, or idle-free zones.” These are systems changes that we have put into place and are continuing to work toward as we move forward.

The more interesting changes, I think, were made on the educational side. Very early on, we realized that students are not going to own these ideas and live them if they just walk into a room and the lights turn on, and then walk out and the lights turn off. That doesn’t change their belief system about saving energy.

However, if you’ve get students involved in this, and they are learning at the same time, and they are helping you to organize, coordinate, and plan for these changes, now suddenly you’ve got something.

We’ve started a number of programs where kids are at the heart of the work that we are doing.

One of the programs that we’re really proud of is our Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan Program. Every school district has to do storm water plans. We no longer gave this job to a consultant who wrote up the report, gave it to the board and took it to the county for approval.

We now have kids do this, so our fifth- and sixth-graders are storm-water pollution engineers. They know where the drains are in their school. They know what pollutants are going in those drains. They know what happens to the water as it heads its way down to the water treatment plants and eventually to the beach. They write the plans. They present the plans to the board.

We got a grant to do some work based on their plans, and they’ve helped us work on designing mitigations for pollution. We’ve got bio-swales that they designed on various campuses. They met with the contractors. They helped us plot out what needed to happen. Now we have student science engineers running around our schools who can tell you everything there is to know about the water that’s running off of that campus or not running off of that campus because of the work that they’ve done. They have presented at national conferences. It’s just amazing to see. Kids can do anything if you turn them loose and point them in the right direction.

We have student energy teams that look very similar to this. We give them a question, a driving question, such as, “Okay. We put in solar. We put in solatubes. Now what do we do? What do we do to reduce our energy on this campus?” The student energy kids can tell you everything there is to know about energy, what the solar panels are doing. They know all the science behind them. They know the numbers and the math behind our energy bills. It cements in them that this is important stuff. They have something to do with it and they’re going to make it better. There’s purpose in the work.

We have active student green teams on every campus. They help run the gardens. They help us with waste management. Anything that we do in relation to environmental stewardship has student involvement in some way. We ask, “What’s the student component here? What’s the learning component?”

This changes the culture. People see the district as “that green district.” Yes, that’s what we do. That’s what we believe in. We think all districts should be “the green district.”

Those three components come together and that’s probably what I’m most proud of in terms of what we’ve done so far.


What were some of the reasons that it made sense to coordinate your health and wellness program with your environmental stewardship efforts?

Promoting healthy food options, or healthy lifestyles goes hand-in-hand with the Environmental Stewardship. We now are growing much of our own produce on our own organic farm, which is located two miles away from our main kitchen. We put that in the daily salad bar. We put it into the homemade pizza sauce and the homemade pizzas and some of the other homemade dishes that we create.

We have nutrition labs with kitchens at four of our sites and we’re putting a fifth one in right now. These are places where we can teach kids about how to eat healthy and why that’s important. These are usually located right outside their garden. We harvest. We take it to the kitchen. Students learn about the science behind what they’re seeing, and then learn how to prepare something that’s nutritionally great for you, but also very tasty. You’ll see kids that now love kale because they harvested it and they cooked it. It’s amazing how good it tastes to them because they did this.

We went chemical free because we want our kids to be healthy. All of our kids have not just regular PE, but also yoga every week. That’s not just to increase strength, which it does, but it also it gives you the ability to relax and to focus. We think it’s one of the components of 21st Century PE. So, there’s a lot of crossover between these two areas, and whenever we talk about one, we usually talk about the other.


Has the DREAM Campus given you additional tools?

The DREAMS (Design, Research, Engineering, Art, Math and Science) Campus is very unique because it’s right in the middle of our district. It is adjacent to a number of non-profit entities that are quite unique. There are very innovative non-profit groups that we’ve worked with in the past and now we’re adjacent to them. The Leichtag Foundation has a sixty-plus acre ranch right across the street, where they’re doing all sorts of amazing work. They just hired a lead scientist that we’re now doing district-wide science experiments with. Next to them is the San Diego Botanic Garden. We think we’re the only school site that’s adjacent to a botanic garden in the nation. What amazing learning possibilities there are in that botanic garden. We work with the San Dieguito Heritage Museum.

All of these groups have formed the Encinitas Environmental Educational Cluster, or the E3 Cluster, and we are the focal point for all of the work that’s going between these non-profits.

We can bring all students from around the district to the campus. It is the heart of the DREAMS approach within the district. We’re constantly updating and improving the curriculum. We should be putting in maker spaces there in the next few months. We have new partners that are coming onboard. It’s a unique place for us to do design and research around this type of teaching, this type of learning.


Is it harder, or easier, to do things on a district-wide level?

If you look around the state and around the nation, there are very few districts that are doing this work in a district-wide way. There are lots of districts that have put in solar, or that have put in some systems that are environmentally sustaining, but they haven’t necessarily done the educational component. They don’t necessarily have buy-in from all of their sides. It’s a very difficult thing to do. This is not something where you can wave a magic wand and say, “Everybody in the school district is going to be doing this and this is now part of our culture.”

With that said, at the district level you have some ability to make some of those larger system changes that an individual school can’t do. For instance, an individual school is probably not going to put up solar panels.

There are lots of things that individual schools can do and there are lots of schools that have done some pretty amazing work on their own. People will point to them as, “Oh, that’s our green school within the district.” We’ve balanced looking from the district down to the schools and looking from individual schools up to the district. A lot of the things that we’ve adopted were first done by individual schools.

It’s our job, as a district, to find these great models, showcase them, share them, help spread and propagate them and work out ways for the district to support larger changes. Finding that balance is hard, but that’s what we’re working on. I know there are other districts that are doing this work too, but they are few and far between.


Encinitas is one of the first Green Ribbon districts in California. What would you say to a superintendent about the rewards of going down this path?

Awards and recognition are important because they help you amplify the messaging. We didn’t have to change a whole lot to apply for the Green Ribbon recognition. Our volunteer group said, “We should do this. We’re doing all this work already, we’ll write it up,” so I had two very passionate moms write it up.

It was beneficial because it gave credibility to the people doing the hard work. Awards give validity to the work that you’re doing and they help you have a voice on a larger stage. As a Green Ribbon school district, we present all over the nation on some of these topics.

We don’t do this for the ribbons on the wall. You do this because it’s the right work to do. You do it because it’s a great tool for engaging students in learning. You do it because it’s part of the culture of what you do.


California takes the challenges of environmental protection very seriously. How much do its green ambitions, or its ability to lead the world where its hoping to help lead it, depend on what happens in the schools?

Dr. Baird working with students.

I think a great deal does, for a lot of different reasons. For one thing, schools are big business in our state and everywhere else. In many of the school districts I have worked in the school district was the largest employer and had the biggest environmental footprint in the community. I have approximately 600 employees in my current school district. We have nine sites that use a lot of energy and create a lot of waste. Just from the standpoint of the business of schools, if we can change what happens in schools we can change a great deal of what’s going on in terms of energy saving, waste reduction and lots of other things.

The bigger picture, though, is that if we can impact our students, they are the ones that are going to ultimately have to solve these problems. We can lead the way, but we need our young people firmly committed to this issue. We need our young people knowledgeable about environmental stewardship, why climate change is important, and why the science behind it is important. That work is critical.

I’ve already seen that our students take what they learn at school and they change what happens in their homes in terms of healthier eating, in terms of better recycling, in terms of greater energy efficiency. They’re taking those lessons home and they’re impacting their families. That impact is going to spread. Wherever they go in their life, they can have that same kind of impact on a much larger scale.

We have to do this in schools. If schools don’t do this, this is game over.


Your community is on the coastline. Do students come to you with some sort of a connection to the environment because of their proximity to the ocean?

It’s an interesting question. We have an agricultural history in Encinitas. At one point in time much of Encinitas was devoted to growing flowers. We were the poinsettia capital of the world, where the flower was developed and grown and sent out. That agricultural heritage is there, a part of what this community has been. Then, as you indicate, we have an amazing coastline and beach. Many of our parents are engaged in the sciences and arts and things that maybe have a deeper connection to some of these environmental concerns.

I do know that our kids are fortunate in that they can see the impact of things such as storm water runoff to the beach. We go down and we do beach cleanup days, and you can see the trash and the things that get into the ocean. They can see that connection – it’s not like things disappear down a pipe and you never know where they go.

It’s hard to look at the Pacific Ocean and not realize that it has an impact on where you are and what you do and everything else. I’d say that probably our kids are more affected by the environment because of the place they live, but I don’t think it’s just related to that.


It seems that we’re starting to move beyond building issues to much bigger aspirations for what a “green school” might involve. What do you see that gives you hope, or excites you about where things could go?

I think there are two answers to this: what scares me about where we are in the evolution of green schools and what excites me.

The fear is that we’re taking some backward steps around the environment right now at the national level and that may push down to schools in some ways. For instance, the Green Ribbon program probably doesn’t cost a whole lot, but I’m guessing it’s probably not valued right now and so that may go away. Certain programs, certain grants, things that may support schools’ work, could disappear at the same time that we’re seeing some backward movements on environmental issues in the national level.

What excites me, however, is that there is a strong pushback to that. There is also some really great momentum in schools right now. There’s no school that I know of that doesn’t at least believe in these things. They may not be doing a lot yet to get to the finish line, but everybody that I know of in schools believes in the concept of environmental stewardship and that we should be doing work in this area. I’m seeing a lot of individual schools start to make some really tremendous strides in this direction.

At the same time, there are national and state movements to do more around the educational process. The Environmental Literacy Steering Committee, for instance, is really working on getting environmental literacy infused throughout the education standards. I think that’s a good step, provided it’s not perceived as an additional thing on top of all the other things that schools have to do. I think the smart way to do that is you find it in the next generation’s science standards, you use it to teach new math standards, you can use it as a support mechanism in teaching English, arts and various things. It becomes one of those tools that you can almost do everything with.

I’m seeing lots of good work happen. I’m seeing some system changes happen throughout the state that are exciting. More and more schools are getting solar panels. More and more schools are implementing recycling programs. Those are good things, and now I think the next natural evolution for most schools is, “How do we more directly involve students in this work? And what does that learning process look like? And then, how do we sustain this work?”

Those are critical issues, but we’re moving. There’s a dynamic feel to what’s happening right now in this area. I think everybody recognizes that we don’t have time to waste around saving the environment. It’s now, it’s these kids, it’s these schools, it’s these school districts. I feel that sense of energy, momentum, enthusiasm, and I see some good things happening. There’s a lot of work to be done, though.

Protecting the environment is not a political football that belongs to one party or the other. It really should be everybody’s concern. What makes me happy is that our parents love that their kids are engaged in this work and are passionate about what we’re doing here.

Sometimes when you get people that don’t have that connection, they’re see this from, “Oh, they’re promoting a political agenda.”

This isn’t a political agenda. This is a life agenda.


Thank you.