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Going green in New Westminster: How one small B.C. school district is fighting climate change

Here's how SD40 has set out on a journey to sustainability.

Can one small B.C. school district help fight climate change?

The New Westminster school district says yes – and it’s laid out a path to help it take action on the climate crisis.

School District 40 trustees heard about the district’s work on its climate action plans during a presentation at a board meeting in February.

So what does it all mean for you, your child and your child’s school?

We break it all down here.

From the Paris Agreement to New West: How it all began

Remember the 2015 Paris Agreement? That agreement, reached by world leaders at the UN Climate Change Conference, asked countries to commit to reducing fossil fuel emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. It’s a legally binding international treaty that entered into force in November 2016; 193 parties (192 countries plus the European Union) have joined.

But, in the fall 2018, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report calling for stricter targets to avoid the worst effects of climate change. To keep global warming below 1.5 C, the IPCC said the world would need to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

How did this get to the SD40 table?

In October of 2019, a group of students and community members, called SD40 for the Climate, spoke at a school board operations committee meeting. They asked the school board to declare a climate emergency and to apply a climate lens to all its decision-making.

Following that presentation, the school board voted to declare a climate emergency – becoming the first Lower Mainland school district to do so – and agreed to come up with a climate strategy for the district. That strategy would focus on both facilities and activities in a two-pronged approach:

  1. setting measurable targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and
  2. providing leadership and support on climate literacy and environmental sustainability for students and staff in New Westminster schools.

Climate action is now embedded in the district’s strategic plan.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions: What’s being done with buildings

A critical step for the school district is ensuring that facilities are LEED-compliant. (LEED, for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a green building certification program.)

The biggest change-makers? The new New Westminster Secondary School, which opened to students in January 2021, and the new Skwo:wech Elementary School, which just opened to students after March break this year.

With the two new schools, and the decommissioning of the old buildings, the school district expects to see a significant reduction in emissions. It says it should start to see the benefits in the 2022/23 school year.

SD40 is also LEED Gold certified or compliant at:

  • École Qayqayt Elementary
  • Fraser River Middle School
  • School District 40 offices

Energy conservation: How the district is upgrading schools

The school district is also focusing on energy conservation with projects such as installing air source heat pumps, re-roofing schools, converting buildings to LED lighting and using CO2 sensors and automated controls for ventilation and heat.

There’s one catch, though. As secretary-treasurer Bettina Ketcham pointed out, School District 40 can’t fund any of these projects on its own. It has to put in capital funding requests to the B.C. Ministry of Education, and it’s just one of 60 districts around the province looking for money from the same pot.

SD40 hasn’t been successful in all of its requests, but it has managed to make some headway.

A few of the recent and upcoming upgrades include:

  • installation of a new air source heat pump at Queensborough Middle School in spring break
  • upcoming installation of an air source heat pump at Glenbrook Middle School, set for summer 2022
  • roofing replacements at all schools. When Queensborough Middle School’s re-roofing project is done this summer, it will be the final replacement in the district.
  • conversion of all lighting to LED lights. With the recent conversion at Queen Elizabeth Elementary, the district is now 100% converted
  • completion of building envelope upgrade at Lord Tweedsmuir Elementary in summer 2022. Still to come, awaiting ministry approval and funding, are requested building envelope upgrades at Lord Kelvin, Connaught Heights and Queen Elizabeth elementary schools.

Taking environmental action: What’s being done to make schools more sustainable

School District 40 has been evaluating its operations against a “sustainable schools checklist” from the Ministry of Education. Using that checklist, it’s come up with actions to take to improve in the areas of waste reduction, water conservation, and school grounds and transportation.

Here are some highlights:

Waste reduction:

  • SD40’s Fuel Up school lunch program has converted to compostable lunch containers.
  • SD40 has reduced its printer fleet from 83 devices to 67. It’s encouraging digital communication, rather than printing everything on paper, and using double-sided printing (on recycled paper) as the standard.

Water conservation

  • All faucets in the district are now touchless, with auto shut-off.
  • 90% of school sites have been converted to on-demand hot water – only Lord Kelvin remains outstanding.

School grounds and transportation

  • The district set aside $10,000 for climate action grants to help schools take on sustainability projects; some of those have been used to start or expand school gardens.
  • Budget requests for 2022/23 include considering additional bike/scooter lockups at school sites and upgrading to electric vehicles for light-duty trucks in the district’s fleet.

Climate education: What’s being taught to students and teachers?

In the 2021/22 school year, the district allocated an 0.4 FTE staff position to support climate action leadership in schools. That position is held by Iain Lancaster, district vice-principal for programs and planning.

Lancaster has worked with teacher-librarian Kristie Oxley to pull together resources for teachers, available via a district portal, that provide guidance on introducing climate education at all levels from kindergarten through high school.

Lancaster noted the goal is to integrate climate learning in all aspects of learning, aligning it with the big ideas in the B.C. curriculum.

That starts in the primary grades with learning about nature and the environment, moving on through the middle grades with discussions of biological and environmental systems, and into more comprehensive, all-around discussions of climate change by the senior years in high school.

The resources also include “units of inquiry” that teachers can use with their classes to help students wrap their heads around the scope of climate change, plus frameworks that can help teachers fit climate action work into their students’ learning.

Elementary and middle schools are also all receiving Scholastic teaching packs about environmental issues.

Climate action: Special events and activities

Work at the individual school level is being spearheaded by Green Teams, essentially grassroots environmental clubs or groups led by one or two teachers.

Climate action grants have been provided to teams to help them take on a variety of projects:

  • creating or enhancing school gardens and focusing on pollinator populations (bees);
  • culling invasive Himalayan blackberry;
  • taking Indigenous-themed environmental stewardship field trips;
  • spearheading projects aimed at reducing single-use plastics;
  • organizing a climate action symposium, coming to New Westminster Secondary School.

The district also organized a number of awareness-raising days across the district tied in to a Turn Down the Heat campaign in March. Schools turned down the heat to 18C (instead of the usual daytime 21C) and then held some associated awareness days, including a Snuggly Sweater Day, a Meatless Monday challenge, a Skip to School Day and a Wacky Warm Socks Day.

The idea of all the fun days was to engage students, particularly the younger ones, with the concept of climate action and to offer an entry point into a “teachable moment” for classroom teachers.

2022/23 and beyond: Where does SD40 go from here?

The school district has begun its discussions on the 2022/23 budget, and figuring out how to fit climate action plans into that work will be part of the board’s decision-making process.

Secretary-treasurer Bettina Ketcham highlighted a couple of upcoming budget requests: for money up add bike/scooter lockups at school sites and to upgrade light-duty trucks in the district’s fleet to electric vehicles.

The district’s budget process includes getting input from stakeholder groups – students, teachers, staff, parents – and trustee workshops with staff to determine how to fit the district’s strategic priorities into the available money.

We’ll follow more of those discussions as they unfold this spring.

Want to know more?

A presentation about the district’s climate action plan was part of the Feb. 22 school board meeting. You can find more information as part of the agenda package for that meeting.

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
Email Julie, jmaclellan@newwestrecord.ca.