Promoting Health and Learning with Green Schools: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan Speaks at the G

April 03, 2012

By Mark Bishop, vice president of policy and communications

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to attend the second annual Green Schools National Conference and speak about HSC’s work developing a guide to greening school food service. This conference offered a wonderful opportunity to connect with advocates from across the nation and learn about the wealth of new resources and exciting progress these advocates are bringing to schools. These connections invigorate our work and consistently reinforce my belief that the green schools movement is growing in breadth and bringing increasing value to schools and students across the nation. 

For me, the highlight of this conference was an excellent keynote speech by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. You can check out his full remarks online here. What stood out to me most about these remarks is how clearly Secretary Duncan, in his role as our nation’s education leader, articulated the connection between green schools and students’ learning. He said:  

In the past, skeptics of both green schools and the value of environmental literacy have claimed that reducing our ecological footprint and increasing understanding of the environment was somehow a zero-sum game.

The skeptics said, 'sure, those are nice-sounding goals.' But they warned that green schools would have to come at the expense of reading and math, of repairing broken-down schools, and offering arts and sports. I want to state unequivocally that the green schools movement is not a zero-sum game. It's really a win-win game. . . . 

When I was CEO in the Chicago schools, I saw first-hand how changes in school construction and renovation affected students' ability to learn. When children and teachers no longer had to go to school in stuffy buildings, in classrooms that were noisy and poorly lit, they felt they could do a better job of teaching and learning. Just as importantly, they felt we cared about them to create a better learning environment. In devastated and neglected inner-city neighborhoods, the symbolic impact of this work cannot be overstated.

It is no surprise that improving the quality of our school environments can have a powerful effect on productivity and student achievement. . . .

What was common sense in Chicago then still makes sense to me in Washington today: Healthier school environments and healthier habits of nutrition and exercise make for happier, healthier, more attentive, and more productive students. And that common sense notion is now being borne out by a growing body of academic research linking high-quality physical activity and nutrition to better student performance.

What also stood out to in these remarks is how Secretary Duncan brought many concepts that we talk about as “school wellness” — healthy eating, opportunities for physical activity — into his discussion of green schools. We know that student health goes hand-in-hand with environmental responsibility, and I am happy to see this connection growing stronger in our nation’s dialogue about green schools. 

Thanks to Secretary Duncan and to the organizers of the Green Schools Conference for their efforts to promote green, healthy learning environments that are good for students, good for school budgets and good for our earth.