Green for learning, green for good is the practice at San Diego Unified

Posted: Thursday, April 21st 2016

Green for learning, green for good is the practice at San Diego Unified

From environmental science to sustainable gardens, locally grown food, recycling, solar energy and water conservation, to creating new environmental curriculum, San Diego Unified's students, teachers, staff and operations are helping to not only teach environmental sustainability, but practicing it every day.

A longtime leader in educating its students in environmental education and sustainability, the district also has a long history of being proactive in promoting solar energy, recycling, energy and water conservation, as well as other sustainable efforts.

The district's efforts impact our students and the community by creating a better San Diego environment, while today's students are tomorrow's San Diego decision-makers. It's also a money saver, providing more funds for learning.

Highlighted below are some of San Diego Unified’s ongoing sustainable efforts; for more, check out our Newscenter stories on sustainability.

Classroom Connections

School Gardens

Throughout the district, school gardens are an educational experience for our students in all grades. At elementary schools, the students learn about the basics of gardening and how plants are part of the earth's ecosystems. Science and environmental learning expand in middle and high schools. Programs include a study of bees at Birney Elementary School, and the Friendship and Garden Club at Field Elementary.

National recognition of the value of school gardens resulted in a $2.5 million, three-year grant from the Department of Defense to teach students the link between their dinner table and the earth.

School gardens are also the centerpiece for community involvement with our schools. Examples include the Montgomery Middle School partnership with the University of San Diego, and volunteers at De Portola Middle School.

Science sprouts in school gardens, with rainwater collection systems installed at Pacific Beach and Franklin Elementary schools, with aquaponics systems at Patrick Henry and Clairemont high schools.

School gardens also provide a harvest for the school cafeteria, through the Garden to Café program. Working with the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health, garden-grown produce is now served as part of the school's meal. This innovative program allows students to not only learn about growing fruits and vegetables, but savor the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor. 

Student Energy Competition

With 46 San Diego Unified schools participating, the district is looking to repeat as a winner in Energize Schools, the San Diego schools energy conservation competition.

Kearny High won the 2015 competition, reducing its energy competition by 13.6 percent over the three weeks measured by co-sponsor San Diego Gas and Electric. The top five places in the countywide program, were all San Diego Unified schools: Kearny High, first place; Patrick Henry High, second; Correia Middle School, third; Roosevelt Middle School, fourth; Bethune K-8, fifth; San Diego High, honorable mention. Participation in the contest resulted in a 2015 savings of $38,000 to San Diego Unified, when 31 schools participated.

A bigger savings is projected in 2016 with more district schools involved. This year's competition runs April 13 to May 3.

Recycling and Waste Reduction

Student “Green Teams,” recycling clubs, “Planet Protectors,” and other earth-friendly efforts are embracing classroom and lunchtime recycling programs. Each month, over 220 tons of paper, cardboard, plastic, metal and glass are recycled, saving more than 3,300 trees, nearly 12 million gallons of water, and over 44,500 kilowatt hours of electricity. As the district pays disposal fees based on the amount that goes into a landfill, over $50,000 per month in trash disposal costs are saved by recycling.

All district schools have access to a mixed-material recycling program. At many schools, hands-on learning teaches students about ecology, composting in their school garden or with worms (vermi-composting), and studying the science behind the process.

At Cherokee Point Elementary, the “Green Team” is helping to pilot a food scrap collection program, diverting over 900 pounds per week of food scraps that are composted at the City of San Diego’s Greenery at the Miramar Landfill. This material is combined with material from all around the city to create rich compost that is free to San Diego residents (up to 2 cubic yards and self-loaded).

Community Responsibility

Monroe Clark Middle School students worked to open their school's recycling program to their families. The project not only helped them learn about recycling, but how to get involved in their community and help solve local problems. As part of its curriculum that promotes education in civics and government, these types of programs help the next generation learn the value of being a good resident of their community. Watch video

Scripps Ranch High School’s Sustainable Technologies Building

The 10,000-square-foot Scripps Ranch High Sustainable Technologies Building is home to teaching and learning about emerging, high-growth professions, such as engineering and design, building trades and construction, transportation, and power and utilities. The focus is on green construction, renewable energy and utilities, alternative fuels, clean transportation, as well as innovative engineering and design.

The College, Career and Technical Education Program (CCTE) facility itself teaches students about sustainability. An energy tower with LCD screens displays relevant building information compiled from solar panels on the roof capable of generating 10,000 watts of power.

Wind turbines capture wind energy and utilized by the building, while other energy saving and sustainable features include an 80,000-gallon rainwater reuse system, solar panels, recycled blue-jean insulation, and Alaskan Yellow Cedar Wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a non-profit organization that advocates for environmentally responsible forestry and sets standards for responsible forest management.

Water conservation curriculum

Two teachers and another staff member joined a local team in 2014 that created new water-related educational programs and projects that integrate arts-based approaches into STEM learning, products and services around water conservation in the San Diego region. The Balboa Park Cultural Partnership hosted the fellowship program that brought together 100 participants diverse in expertise and life experience from the San Diego and Tijuana regions for an intensive course in innovation

Facilities and Operations

Farm to School

Our students eat more than 130,000 meals every day and San Diego Unified's commitment to nutrition and our carbon footprint has resulted in one of the nations's largest efforts to put locally grown fruits and vegetables into school cafeterias.

The Farm to School Program, California Thursdays and Harvest of the Month have joined local farmers with our Food and Nutrition Services Department to not only promote healthy eating, but keep dollars spent on school meals right here in San Diego.

School nutrition is funded and regulated by the federal government; San Diego Unified Food Services staff ensures that any locally grown and sourced food meets the rigorous federal lunch standards and is also consistent with federal purchasing requirements. 


Solar energy is providing 7.3 million kilowatt hours annually from 37 locations in the district. Whether roof-mounted or on carport structures, San Diego Unified's solar production offset CO2 emissions by 5,034 metric tons in 2014-2015. This is equivalent to 1,060 passenger cars taken off the road in one year. 

Using Green Bonds, new solar systems will be installed under the district’s capital improvement bond program. This calendar year, construction will begin on solar carport systems at eight high-energy-use schools. In 2017, eight to 12 more high-energy-use schools will get solar carport systems as well. The estimated annual production for the systems installed in both phases is 10.5 kilowatt hours.

Water Savings

Responding to California's severe drought, San Diego Unified cut back on watering ornamental plants throughout the district. The results exceeded expectations: from June 2015 to January 2016, the district saved water at an average rate of 35.6 percent, compared to the same timeframe in 2013. The district is contributing an average of 19.6 percent additional water savings above and beyond the San Diego city-required 16 percent water reduction, and Gov. Brown's 2015 order that California cut its water usage by 25 percent.

LED Lighting

Working to save as much as 67 percent on electric usage by lighting, funds from Proposition 39, the 2012 California Clean Energy Jobs Act, are being used to install LED lighting at selected school sites. Interior LED lighting saves from 40-67 percent on electricity, depending on the fixture replaced. This helps to save on the energy bill as well as cutting back CO2 emissions. LED lighting will continue be installed throughout the district.

The Collaborative for High Performing Schools

San Diego Unified designs new energy-efficient facilities to meet The Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) standards. This national movement works to improve student performance and the entire educational experience by building sustainable schools.


Since 2009, San Diego Unified buses have carried equipment that reduces particulates from diesel exhaust, and since 2011 have used biodiesel mix in the fuel, further cutting exhaust. With more than 400 buses in the fleet, the district's transportation system is one of the largest in San Diego County. A 2011 Board of Education resolution supported efforts to use renewable resources and reduce the fleet's carbon footprint.


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