Strong Leadership and Great Promise on School Environmental Health from EPA and Dept. of Education:

March 15, 2010

By Mark Bishop, Deputy Director

Conf

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson speaks about her child's experiences attending school with asthma

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of attending the 10th annual Tools for School National Symposium. This was my third time attending: first in in 1996 (it wasn't called a symposium back then, just a gathering in the basement of a hotel), then in 2005 and finally, this year. Boy has this conference progressed! And as a school health advocate for over 15 years, I have to say that this conference really is a great marker showing how far we've come, while still acknowledging how far we need to go. 

I left the conference with three main thoughts: There is now leadership like never before; it's exciting to see the EPA partnering with the Department of Education; and wow, this is how to run a conference.

First, the EPA's Tools for Schools Program has always been a small department in a large agency. They've fought for resources and rarely had a high profile in what has traditionally been a regulatory agency. However, for the first time, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson (in the photo above) spoke at the conference — showing a real commitment from the top. Jackson eloquently spoke of her personal challenges involved in sending her asthmatic child to school and wanting to do everything in her power to ensure that other parents don't have to go through the same challenges.That level of engagement throughout the Agency means that for the first time, real discussions of environmental health are happening throughout the EPA.

Second, one of the major barriers to improving the indoor environments in schools has been a lack of resources from the Department of Education — but this is beginning to change. Since the new administration came into office last year, there has been change at the agency level with regard to these issues, real change.For the first time in my career, I'm seeing the Department of Education getting involved with the EPA on school environment and health issues. And we can't wait to see more. From the staff level all the way up to the leadership at the Department of Education, we are excited to see communication and coordination of programs for environmental health in schools. We all know that no single agency has enough resources to help schools solve all their problems, so we better work together. 

At the conference, the Department of Education's General Counsel, Charles Rose, discussed the importance of the school environment and how working with EPA will be important to prioritizing children's health. This was a first, and it's very good news for school health advocates.

Third and finally, this may have been the best run conference I've attended. It was well organized, the program effectively modeled team-building activities that the participants were being asked to bring back to their school, and in a short period of time it really built excitement around what many consider to be mundane issues. The same EPA staff has been running the program since its inception. Fifteen years ago I knew how dynamic and what a great leader this staff person was, but now she has added skills and moderating techniques that made this an exceptionally effective and motivating conference. Tracy — kudos to you and your success in turning indoor air quality into an exciting and motivating issue. Yes, we learned about identifying mold, conducting facility walk-throughs and testing for radon in this symposium; but more importantly, we were motivated to engage school teams into joining us. 

For all the schools out there, I encourage you to consider taking part in the 11th Annual Tools for Schools Symposium because you don't get quality experiences like this every day.
 
The energy in the audience, both from school participants and EPA staff who are dedicated to these issues, was so impressive. Taken as a whole, the quality of the program, the new partnerships with the Department of Education and the leadership from the top made this is an exciting day for those working to improve school health.