Fusing Sustainability and Education in New York City Schools

This Q&A is part of an ongoing interview series on environmental justice by Rachel Kirk and Meredith Smith at Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity. The series explores how climate change and environmental challenges alter current and potential conflicts in the world.

Oren Pizmony-Levy is an associate professor in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University. His research focuses on the socio-politics of education policy movements and he has been part of an ongoing partnership between the New York City Department of Education Office of Sustainability and Teachers College (TC) that strives to improve school engagement with sustainability.

Tell me about your partnership between Teachers College and the New York City Department of Education in terms of environmental justice.

Oren Pizmony-Levy

Oren Pizmony-Levy works to help schools engage with environmental and social justice issues at every level.

My collaboration with the Department of Education Office of Sustainability is looking at ways we can empower schools to engage with sustainability and environmental education in a holistic way. It’s not only about teaching the content of sustainability sciences or talking about the values of what it means to protect the planet but also to model this kind of behavior and encourage students to take action in their private sphere at home and in the public sphere as citizens. The goal is that what kids are doing in schools will trickle out to their families and communities. New York City is an interesting case because it has a sustainability plan where different agencies, including the Department of Education, are required to promote environmental sustainability as part of the city plan.

Sustainability is not highlighted in teacher training or curriculum, so many schools partner with NGOs to create this programming. When it comes to social justice, Rosa Fernandez, a masters student in my class on sustainability, wrote a paper about which schools are partnering with NGOs and we found three interesting patterns. In 2016, only one-third of NYC schools partnered with at least one NGO, so two-thirds of schools are disconnected from this network of community organizations. Next, the likelihood that the school will have a partnership increases as the number of white students in the school increases. Lastly, the likelihood of a school being in a partnership with an NGO increases as the number of students on free and reduced lunch increases decreases, meaning that the schools that are serving poorer students are less likely to have these partnerships. One potential explanation could be that these schools don’t have the resources to pay for these partnerships. This is where you have an irony where NGOs that do this kind of work don’t necessarily pay attention who exactly they are serving. The kids who are going to suffer more from climate change are those that don’t have access to these programs. These are the kinds of questions that we are looking at.

How did you first become interested in these questions?

After my military service in Israel, I started working for an environmental NGO with the task of developing curriculum on how to teach kids about sustainability using computers. This was in 1998 when the internet just came to us so we started working with digital cameras that had floppy discs and we developed a lot of materials on how to study ecosystems with early versions of Excel and PowerPoint. I moved up from a junior position and was then part of a curriculum development team on environmental issues. I became really frustrated over why schools aren’t doing this important work, and that became a research question for me and I took it to graduate school. I was interested in how people become environmentalists, and then I was interested in the organizational part on why some countries have more environmental education NGOs than others. I essentially started with activism and then it became academic.

In what ways have you connected your previous work in Israel to your current work in New York City?

It’s interesting that you ask that because we recently had a webinar where we brought together students from TC with students from Ha’Kibutzim College in Israel. Each group did small studies on schools and sustainability and they came together to start comparing notes. Students from Israel had very positive perceptions on education and sustainability in the U.S. and thought that we know how to do sustainability education very well. Our TC students, Erika Kessler, Darren Rabinowitz and Kairat Kurakbayav, presented three different cases of schools and how sometimes leaders of our schools don’t care as much about this topic. These types of exchanges show students the global intersections of these questions. Overall, though, in the past few years, my work has really been focusing on the local level of New York because it’s a rare case. There are not many cities where their schools are part of their sustainability plan.

What are the shorter and longer-term impacts that you’re hoping to have for this project?

With this DOE partnership, in the short-term, I want to see more schools taking on sustainability beyond the facilities level. This means not only taking care of the recycling program or shutting off the lights but thinking about how the school can provide pedagogical opportunities for students to really engage with the topics. Students could do waste audits, or if the school has solar panels, the solar panels can trickle down to the science and computer programming curriculum, where they can analyze the data and gain data literacy. Social studies and history programs can engage with these topics more. I want it to be infused in every aspect of the school so that students can see the connections from different subjects.

school bulletin board

Bulletin board at P721K in Coney Island, made by the sustainability coordinator after lessons about ecosystems and the interdependence between living and nonliving things. Photo: Teachers College

As for longer-term, I want other education systems to think about the structures they need to develop in order to have similar success to New York City. I’m not saying that other education systems need to copy exactly what New York City is doing because that won’t work, but I want them to think about structures that can lead to success. I’m also hoping that we start seeing more diversity within environmental movements. In schools, these topics tend to be centered around white, upper-middle class mothers, and these issues affect more than this demographic. We actually hosted a parent conference last fall, and we worked to get a diverse set of parents and had a panel with mothers from the Bronx and Queens, some immigrants and some born in New York, and it was so interesting to see how people with different perspectives are talking about sustainability completely differently. I hope to really continue to engage diverse groups of parents longer term.

You mentioned that someone shouldn’t copy exactly what is being done in New York City, but what are the key takeaways from the work being done here for other contexts?

Definitely leadership. People need to understand that there needs to be someone that is explicitly looking at issues of sustainability in education. In many cities, there is a sustainability officer for the city, but if you want it infused in the education system, there needs to be someone responsible for overseeing it there. You also have to have someone in the school level, so the sustainability coordinator position here in NYC is an interesting approach. Although these positions are not paid, in over half of the schools, the principal has allocated some kind of support to help them with their projects. If other systems want to do something similar, they need to think about the different support systems within the school. I also think that it’s really important to cultivate a network of NGOs. This will help so that that nobody is reinventing the wheel. There is support for sending the NGOs to schools where it’s really needed, and this can foster collaboration between them.

Who are the most important partners within and outside of TC?

Our initiative on sustainability at Teachers College brings together different fields of experts within the college. We have Sonali Rajan from health education, Pam Koch from nutrition, for example. We come together and understand sustainability as an intersection of health, social, environmental, and economic issues, and it’s very interdisciplinary.

Outside of TC, the director, Meredith McDermott, and the deputy director Thad Copeland, of the Department of Education Office of Sustainability have both been very instrumental in this work. We co-authored a paper on how we got started and our growth. We learned that sustainability coordinators are really interested in learning but they don’t have much time to leave the school, so we are offering one-hour long webinars in the afternoons. We bring scientists from the Earth Institute or NGOs or other school sustainability coordinators to talk about a specific topic such as climate change, environmental education, development of student green teams, nutrition, and so forth. More long-term, we plan to develop online training modules where teachers can get professional development credit for their certification requirements.

What is one piece of advice that you would give someone who is concerned about the environment but doesn’t know what to do?

I never start my classes with the doom and gloom statistics because when you overwhelm people with how bad the situation is, they will become hopeless. I start with the beautiful images of the Apollo program taken in 1968 and 1972 of the Earth to show how fragile, yet beautiful, the planet is. And it might be very slow but when we look at things that have already been done, we are making progress. If I’m giving recommendations to a person trying to get involved in environmental work, I would tell them to join a local NGO to do what they can in their community. If you enjoy walking in the park and seeing the flowers, go volunteer in the park. If you love the ocean, volunteer with cleaning the ocean. There are things that we can do in our own community to start. We have also actually seen that people who start locally end up becoming more engaged and active at state and national levels.

What is one book that you recommend on environmental justice and education?

The Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv, which talks about how children in the United States are suffering from a nature deficit and the effects that this has.

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