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Monday, May 20, 2024

A New Green Deal for Schools

In the face of the climate crisis and existing inequities in the city, it is crucial schools are prepared to prioritize student safety, health, and education,” said student Anna Mayer, co-founder of the School Without Walls chapter of the Sunrise Movement (www.sunrisemovement.org).

On Jan. 17, the DC State Board of Education (SBOE) unanimously voted in favor of a resolution supporting a Green New Deal for District Schools, becoming the second school board in the country to affirm such resolution. Led by School Without Walls High School (SWWHS, 2130 G St. NW) students including Mayer, the resolution aims to assure that all students “can attend safe, clean and climate prepared schools.”

Students pose with a DC State Board of Education members and a copy of their resolution after the latter was supported at a Jan. 17 meeting of SBOE. Photo: Courtesy SWWHS Sunrise

75 people attended the DC SBOE meeting to support the resolution, which passed to an outburst of applause from supporters and from board members. “It was a relief—we had put a lot of work in and it felt like a really big culminating event of everything that we’ve been doing for the last three months,” said Mayer.

The DC Green New Deal for Schools consists of five demands. First, that schools are in safe and clean buildings. Second, that students should be provided with free and healthy lunch. Third, that schools should provide pathways to “green jobs,”,or jobs in sustainable industries. Fourth, that schools are equipped with climate disaster plans. And fifth, that curriculums are adjusted to include climate education.

It is modeled after the Green New Deal for Public Schools, a federal bill first introduced by Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) in 2021. The only other district in the US to support the deal at the state-level was Boulder Valley School District in November of 2023.

Under the leadership of then-sophomores Mayer and fellow co-founder Zoe Fisher, the SWWHS chapter of Sunrise began meeting at the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year. The club’s faculty sponsor is Rachel Blessing, a long-time social studies teacher at SWWHS and also an alumni of the school.

Though the National Sunrise Movement wrote the draft for the Green New Deal for Schools, the SWWHS chapter was responsible for refining the resolution into a version that the SBOE would support.

Students saw they have done the work because they believe in the cause. “I’ve been motivated to get the Green New Deal for Schools passed because I believe one of the most effective ways to actually make an impact in stopping the climate crisis is to go to those in power and make systemic changes that will better our community,” said Fisher.

Gwen Morris, another junior who is part of the club, said advocacy with the SWWHS Sunrise chapter allows her to take positive action that will alleviate her fears about the future. “I’ve been scared and angry about the climate emergency for years,” she said. “The [Green New Deal for Schools] gives my peers and me a voice with which to stand up for our schools and enact change in our communities.”

The club now has around 20 members, but over 100 students from all eight wards are part of effort around the Green New Deal for Schools, according to Fisher. “I think they’re doing a great job in being change makers and changing the world,” said Blessing.

Though a victory for Sunrise Movement, the DC SBOE resolution is largely symbolic. DC’s SBOE is primarily in charge of setting the curriculum and graduation standards. Outside of that, the SBOE serves to advocate for students and use their knowledge to advise the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), but it does not have authority to impose change on the school system.

Persuading the DC City Council

DC Council would need to pass and fund legislation in order for the provisions of the Green New Deal to be implemented. At a meeting of the DC Council Committee of the Whole on Feb. 28, representatives from the Sunrise Club presented a report consisting of ten new, more specific demands. Some of the most notable ones include a requirement for all eligible schools to be equipped with solar panels, modern and sustainable HVAC systems that are checked regularly and mandating that future DCPS renovations result in net zero energy buildings.

Numerous students from several DCPS schools testified. While the phrase “Green New Deal” sounds like a plan focused on sustainability, students spent much of the time arguing for better, more equitable infrastructure in schools.

Kahri Borum, a senior at Anacostia High School, described the subpar state of facilities at the school. “We look up to the ceiling and see exposed wires on every floor,” she said. “When we go into our bathrooms we have broken sinks and some of our toilets may be broken and will not get fixed until a week later… How can we learn if we feel parts of the building are unsafe and unsanitary?”

DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) told the students that their coordinated testimony was quite impressive. But he questioned the need for additional sustainable building requirements for DCPS buildings, noting that DC Code already includes the Clean Energy DC Building Code Amendment Act, which requires construction projects in DC to be net-zero by 2026.

Mindsets like Mendelson’s may detract from the urgency of writing Green New Deal for Schools legislation for DC. It might also be difficult to fund. With DC coffers already depleted due to the city’s struggling real estate market as well as the end of federal COVID-19 pandemic related aid, introducing new costs for schools is not an easy sell.

Despite a difficult path ahead, the club’s leaders say they feel confident going forward. DC SBOE representatives have assured SWWHS Sunrise members that they will advocate for legislation aligned with the deal in upcoming city council meetings. “I also know that we have a lot of support in various places in the city and so far the initiative has been a big success,” Mayer said, “and I have no real reason to think that it would stop.”

Along with working with council members to introduce DC Green Deal Legislation in place, the club is selling t-shirts to fund the creation of paraphernalia promoting the initiative.

The club plans to focus most of their efforts towards this legislation over the next few months. Learn more about the Sunrise Movement and the Green New Deal for Schools at www.sunrisemovement.org/campaign/green-new-deal-for-schools. Learn more about SWWHS at www.swwhs.org.

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