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Institutional Sustainability at San Domenico School

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Institutional Sustainability at San Domenico School

by Stuart Cowan
Another article on San Domenico School
[see EL #23, Fall 1996, p 16]

"Plants that are native to this area take less work and energy because they are already accustomed to the weather, soil, insects, and seasons . . . They would thereby decrease the amount of imported fertilizers, water, and level of maintenance needed for their survival." - From the student management recommendations to the faculty and staff of San Domenico School
Our young people are inheriting a world of great complexity. They will come of age on a planet scarred by ozone depletion, global warming, deforestation, and commonplace wars over natural resources. They will face unprecedented kinds of economic, environmental, and cultural transformation. As they navigate these enormous changes, their fundamental task will be to restore balance and vitality to natural and human communities.
It is the responsibility of every educational institution to prepare its students for the manifold challenges they will face when they leave. If an elementary school or a great research university abdicates this responsibility by insulating students from the outside world, ignoring pressing social and environmental problems, and refusing to embody the very values it is trying to instill, it will do its students a disservice.
San Domenico School, nestled among 625 acres of rolling oak-studded grasslands near the small town of San Anselmo, California, is committed to a profound form of institutional transformation. The pre K-12 school, with 500 students, was founded in 1850 and moved to its present location in 1965. Its brown-shingled buildings, stone walls, and pleasant landscaping fit the land well. Hiking the stunning hills, one is given the courage to imagine how this school, with its splendid setting and sensitively designed campus, may become a model for the shift toward sustainability that so many other communities and institutions have begun to embrace.
At the university level, there is already a burgeoning international movement to green campuses and curriculum. The 1991 Talloires Declaration committed a wide cross-section of university officials to improve the environmental literacy of students in all disciplines. The Campus Earth Summit, convened at Yale in 1994, brought together 450 delegates from 22 countries and all 50 states to think about the prerequisites of sustainable, healthy campuses.
By greening their campuses, schools practice what they teach. As they reduce their environmental impacts, they demonstrate their genuine commitment to sustainability. They turn their campuses into microcosms for the kinds of change that need to happen elsewhere. In the process, students can tackle complex, interdisciplinary problems and learn to communicate effectively with their peers as well as with teachers, staff, and administrators.
San Domenico's head of school, Sister Gervaise Valpey, O.P., and the faculty and staff have earnestly begun the difficult and essential work of transforming San Domenico into a sustainable institution. As a Dominican, Sister Gervaise finds strong support for such work within her order's eight centuries of experience in developing self-reliant monastic communities. Furthermore, the school's value-based mission statement celebrates the diversity of life and recognizes "what it means to be human in a global community and respond with integrity to the needs and challenges of our time."
For many years, Sister Gervaise has been deeply inspired by the life and work of Dominican Sister Miriam Therese MacGillis, founder of Genesis Farm, and Father Thomas Berry, the Catholic "geologian" and author of The Dream of the Earth. MacGillis, Berry, and many other contemporary religious thinkers have begun to articulate a theology of continuity between the human community and the interpenetrating natural communities upon which it is entirely dependent. This continuity - or sacred ecology - has profound implications for our economic, political, religious, and educational institutions.
In 1994, Sister Gervaise, working with Sim Van der Ryn of the Ecological Design Institute, was able to secure a one-year grant from her religious community to launch the Sustainable San Domenico Project. From the beginning, the Project has had a twofold purpose: to introduce sustainability into the curriculum at all grade levels and across all disciplines; and to make the school's operations, maintenance, buying practices, and buildings reflect the principles of sustainability. Underlying both efforts is the notion of ecological design, a comprehensive strategy for minimizing negative environmental impacts.
If we are to create a sustainable world, then we must get the details - the specifics of the design - right. Ecological design provides well-tested ways to minimize energy use, decrease toxicity, turn waste into a resource, make products durable and recyclable, and steward farms and forests. It also emphasizes the integration of food, water, energy, waste, building, and transportation components into coherent sustainable systems. While traditional environmental education effectively awakens students to wild places, ecological design immerses them in the very systems which sustain them.
Ecological design offers a powerful vision for young people: the possibility for regenerative relationships between natural and human communities. From a very early age, we can all be active participants in the design and creation of our places. Children have a rich sense of form, beauty, and, most importantly, interconnection. They spontaneously bridge the disciplines so carefully compartmentalized in a standard curriculum.
During 1994-95, the Sustainable San Domenico Project engaged students in a wide variety of place-based ecological design projects at the garden, campus, and watershed scales. Younger students were set to work cultivating the organic gardens. Students in the middle grades collaborated on a detailed scale model of the campus, learning algebra, geometry, and map making along the way. Older students began with a base map from the county assessors office and overlaid information on the topography, geology, soils, hydrology, and vegetation of the watershed.
In Shana Strongin's Ecology Honors Class, juniors and seniors tackled a variety of hands-on projects, ranging from detailed studies of campus biodiversity to analyzing campus landscape practices, from restoration ecology to energy audits. These projects required that the students identify problems, work with a team, measure and monitor results, interview resource people, and understand the wider context of their work - skills that will serve them well in later life.
During the projects, students learned something of the soils, flora and fauna, climate, economics, and history of their region, growing more ecologically literate in the process. Most importantly, they learned that their own environmental impacts - and the impacts of the campus as a whole - can be lessened by designing with natural systems rather than against them. They learned about ecological accounting - not just about financial accounting - so that they may better evaluate decisions which occur in their own lives.
One team of students, Anika Selhorst and Christie Lafranchi, worked with Education Director Katy Langstaff to build a fifty-foot long cob and strawbale bench which can accommodate an entire class in the orchard area. Cob, a mixture of straw, clay, and sand, has found a new home in the United States by way of Wales. The bench was covered by mosaics and tiles portraying native species painted by students of all ages. In the students' project report, they argued, "In this time of massive ecological destruction, alternative building materials are necessary. We can no longer rely on traditional materials such as wood and concrete. Sustainable building requires that materials be local, reusable, renewable, and low in embodied energy." Such comments reflect a sophisticated understanding of the issues surrounding ecological building.
I worked with a second team, Michelle Lash, Rebecca Lewis, and Dhara MacDermed, to create an ecological microcosm - model ecosystem - containing a pond and wetland connected by two creeks. As the team interacted with the microcosm, they learned about ecological designer John Todd's "living machines" - complex assemblages of diverse ecosystems - for wastewater treatment. The team perceptively noted that "Once we learn through trial and error exactly how hard it is to create an effective living machine, we will finally comprehend how complex the Earth's natural system of self-purification is, and how the biological, geological, and ecological diversity of the planet is both irreplaceable and indispensable." The microcosm was built outside, which allowed for some unanticipated feedback from natural systems, including liner-eating gophers, and sliding banks!
During 1995-96, San Domenico's commitment to institutional sustainability has continued to deepen. The school believes that if it is to teach the principles of stewardship, it must fully embody them in its very operations and buildings, and even in its choices of paper and cleaning supplies. The campus ecology - embracing the flows of energy, materials, water, food, resources, information, and people which make up the fabric of the school's daily life - must itself become a primary teaching environment, mirroring the lessons offered by the curriculum. Who better to redesign the campus ecology than those who live in it, the students?
Decreasing the environmental impacts of the campus ecology is an incremental process. One begins with a series of "ecological audits" to establish benchmark indicators for various campus systems. How much energy are we using, and in what forms? How much water? Where does the water go? Where is our food coming from? Is it organic? How well are our buildings performing? These indicators provide important feedback for everybody at the school.
The greatest institutional barriers to sustainability are probably not technical or financial. They are cultural: the solutions are unfamiliar to key people. Therefore, transforming campus ecology requires great attention to building support and understanding within the campus community. San Domenico's diverse community of students, teachers, administrators, staff, parents, alumnae, and board members is responding with enthusiasm and support for institutional sustainability.
San Domenico School is currently working with Sustainable Systems Design to evaluate their preliminary ecological audit and determine reasonably cost-effective possibilities for improving institutional sustainability. Some of the measures under consideration include efficient lighting fixtures, pesticide-free landscaping methods, electric buses, utilizing on-site springs, conserving water, and composting food scraps from the cafeteria.
San Domenico is particularly interested in transforming its food service. Exploratory meetings with the West Marin Growers Group, a consortium of local farmers, have suggested the possibility of buying some greens and vegetables from within the county. By buying food from local farmers, the school can establish important community ties which directly support local agriculture and help maintain valuable open space. As a major consumer, the school can provide important support for a healthy, bioregional food system. The food system can ultimately become the basis for a curriculum centering on nutrition, healthy farming, community, and the foodshed.
Some students have become environmental monitors of campus ecosystems, recording the health of their creeks and riparian areas and exchanging information with other schools in the watershed. When their own campus becomes the testing ground for sustainability, students are given a chance to practice stewardship skills where they matter most, in their daily lives and in their own backyards.
Tomorrow's careers will require ecological literacy, holistic thinking, constant innovation, and flexible problem-solving skills. The Sustainable San Domenico Project will give students these skills in abundance, in a context which emphasizes personal integrity, ethics, and community responsibility. The goal is to produce students who are empowered to be stewards wherever they go and in whatever fields they master. Such students will provide effective leadership in the transition towards sustainability which is gathering momentum around the world. Their rich legacy of real work on institutional sustainability at San Domenico will leave them well-prepared to serve their communities.
In the words of Selhorst and Lafranchi, the student cob builders:
"As today's generation is faced with the issues of pollution, extinction, overpopulation, and the depletion of the world's natural resources, people are realizing that the responsibility of caring for the earth is a shared one. San Domenico's decision, as an academic institution, to take an 'ecological stand' and work towards a sustainable campus is especially significant. The young people of today are the future's keepers. San Domenico has the capacity and the responsibility to educate these future leaders about the importance of ecological stewardship."

Stuart Cowan is the co-author of Ecological Design. He is a partner in Sustainable Systems Design, which reengineers businesses and revitalizes communities by integrating economics and ecological design. He can be reached at (510) 526-6991.
For more information about San Domenico School, contact
Sister M. Gervaise Valpey, O.P., Head of School
San Domenico School
1500 Butterfield Road
San Anselmo, CA 94960
(415) 258-1936.

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