At first sight, Spectrum Charter School seemed like many other schools, albeit smaller. As we followed Spectrum’s Principal Jenni Carpenter into our first class visit of the day, we realized that Spectrum Charter School approaches education differently, and calling Spectrum ordinary or traditional would be a serious mistake. If you have ever spent much time in high school, you know that “calm” is rarely an adjective used to describe the classroom experience, even in special education classrooms. More often than not, school environments are rowdy, loud, chaotic, and disjointed; even when there are visitors, a fair amount of whispering and fidgeting is to be expected. In contrast, every class we visited with Jenni was calm, subdued, and thoughtful; most of the students contributed something to our conversation –another rarity.
When most schools think about teaching sustainability, they treat it largely as an addendum. Educators already have too much to teach and not enough time, so sustainability becomes one more add-on that would be great to incorporate if days were longer, curriculum shorter, and testing not such a driving factor. Spectrum Charter School is unique not only because it serves students with autism, but also because the faculty and staff have chosen to embed regenerative sustainability into every aspect of the pedagogy in ways that make sustainability principles central to the school’s culture and overall experience. Instead of just being a lesson here and a field trip there, sustainability is the basis for learning at Spectrum Charter School. Spectrum’s multifaceted curriculum gives students unique opportunities for growth, community-based learning, self-worth, and full potential; enabling them to become productive citizens that not only benefit themselves, but their community as well.
While the students do myriad projects—recycling, installing rain barrels, making birdhouses, and upcycling paper, among other things—the school’s culture of sustainability extends much further than that. Spectrum Charter School’s culture of sustainability was evident at every step of our visit there. In each classroom we visited, we asked students how attending Spectrum Charter School has changed the ways in which they think. Many students reflected on how their behaviors at home have shifted to include recycling, turning off lights, and find new uses for items instead of throwing them out. A new student talked about how there are many opportunities at Spectrum Charter School that are not available at other schools; an older student noted similarly that she will take away many memories of great experiences when she graduates this year. Students mentioned planting seeds and picking up trash at Carnegie Science Center, which gave them opportunities to learn about plants and to remember to stay active. They do yoga and cook healthy snacks together as a way of infusing wellness into both their lifestyles and curriculum. The school even has an Eco-Action team that plans and coordinates many of the school’s projects and, according to Jenni, is “the one club that brings everybody together.”
The Eco-Action team’s most recent achievement is receiving the Green Flag Award from National Wildlife Federation’s Eco-Schools USA program, one of only two schools in Pennsylvania to achieve this distinction. The school was already doing most of the actions necessary to win the award—students and teachers just had to find ways to document what practices were already in place. The Green Flag is an important recognition of so much hard work and dedication, and a symbol that their accomplishment has meaning outside of their school.
Spectrum Charter School’s culture of sustainability was evident at every step of our visit there.
This award is one signifier of the progress that Spectrum has made, but it is not the end of the journey for the school. Spectrum has done an exceptional job at integrating sustainability into all aspects of the school, but achieving that level of integration was a long process that took diligence, endurance and mindfulness to create.
Michelle Johnson is the CEO of Spectrum Charter School, and was also Spectrum’s first employee when the school opened fifteen years ago. When she started at Spectrum, she was personally committed to sustainability as a way to live her life, but not everyone at the school thought sustainability was either important or relevant to the school’s work. Much of Spectrum’s staff was initially resistant to the idea of integrating sustainability. Michelle was met with different levels of understanding, belief, denial, and experience, and sometimes she was the only one working to instill environmental consciousness into the culture of the school. However, she continued to work to integrate her values because she knew that sustainability has many benefits and is more successful when embedded into the traditional academics like science and math, rather than simply being added on. Now, both the staff and students are equally passionate, and is something that newer teachers to the school greatly appreciated. Since sustainability is more of a journey than a destination, Spectrum will continue to integrate new concepts into their teaching and learning practices, such as improved air quality and additional community engagement.
Michelle has been working toward a culture of sustainability at Spectrum since she started working there, but in the last few years, she has made progress more quickly. She underscored that Green Building Alliance’s Green and Healthy Schools Academy (GHSA) was catalytic in fostering change at the school, by providing inspiration and the opportunity to dream big about what the school could be.
Just like oceans, forests, and cities, schools are living systems. To make sure those residing in the system flourish, we must ensure that the system has a healthy and balanced environment.
For Spectrum Charter School, the future looks bright. Seven or eight years ago, Spectrum started having conversations about doubling the school size from thirty-two to sixty-four students, which would mean either expanding the current school or building a new one. Through involvement with GHSA, Spectrum’s made the mental connections between the school’s success, their students’ abilities to thrive, and their forthcoming building project. They quickly settled on pursuing The Living Building Challenge, the highest standard for building performance, occupant health, and environmental impact in use today. Michelle expressed that the students want the same thing: a healthy environment in which they can thrive that also matches the cultural values of sustainability of the school. So far, Spectrum has secured grant funding to pay for the integrated design process that will serve as the jumping-off point for their ambitious and exciting building project.
Just like oceans, forests, and cities, schools are living systems. To make sure those residing in the system flourish, we must ensure that the system has a healthy and balanced environment. For example, fish need clean water, good pH levels, ample oxygen, places to explore, and enough food so that they can thrive. In the same way, a school environment needs certain elements to be healthy and successful, and each of these elements need to be in place and working well in order for students to learn effectively. Spectrum Charter School understands all of the factors at play, and sees the big picture of what it takes to create the supportive and healthy school environment. To them, sustainability fits hand-in-glove with their purpose as an educational institution, and with types of people they want their students to become. Anything less than healthy would affect their students’ ability to thrive.