Editorial: District, students must take responsibility for unsustainable practices, use effective communication to make changes


Gunn, and the Palo Alto Unified School District as a whole, is renowned for its high levels of academic achievement and accomplished alumni. Often, however, Gunn’s academic reputation diverts focus from some of its faults. If a student were to walk around Gunn’s campus after brunch or lunch on an average day, they would notice an abundance of thin plastic bags littering the floor alongside other plastic wrappers and trash. Even though the district has made improvements in sustainable practices, its failure to communicate its progress to community stakeholders has created a disconnect between those creating policy and those being affect by it. This issue has only been compounded by a lack of initiative from the student body in working alongside the district and holding them accountable for improvements in sustainability.

In 2014, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools published a sustainability framework, which was designed to emphasize sustainability and eco-friendly practices within the American school system. The framework was subsequently adopted by PAUSD. Importantly, this framework defines communication as a crucial step in maintaining sustainable practices, equal in importance to the initiatives themselves. “Everyone in a school, especially leaders, communicates the vision through their actions; they walk the talk by modeling the behaviors they desire to see,” the framework reads. “When actions accurately reflect the vision, change efforts are more successful.”

According to a survey conducted by The Oracle with 91 responses, 78% of Gunn students believe that the district has not done enough to ensure that their campuses and administrative practices are eco-friendly. It is likely because of this lack of communication that such a large percentage of students believe the district has not done enough: They are not aware of all the efforts to create eco-friendly practices made on the district’s part.

At Gunn, efforts made to foster sustainable practices in food services are limited by the state of its facilities, which are currently under construction. According to Food Services Director Alva Spence, all Gunn food service activities currently occur in multi-use classrooms where on-site meal preparation is impossible, forcing the district to resort to pre-packaged plastic alternatives. These practices overshadow the efforts made in promoting eco-friendly food services district-wide, and lead students to believe that the district does not care about sustainable practices. In reality, the district has pushed for the use of reusable flatware and other sustainable practices at other school levels. For example, at Addison Elementary School, milk dispensers and stainless steel cups, pre-portioned produce in stainless steel containers and reusable flatware have become the norm, replacing single-use alternatives.

The district has also placed emphasis on other domains outside of food services. According to Chair of the Sustainable Schools Committee Rachel Gibson, PAUSD has recently increased the use of sustainable practices in construction, purchased a fleet of electric buses and coordinated waste sorting between sites. Still, the district has rarely shared evidence of these improvements to community members and students. Communication on the subject is crucial, as it makes the community aware that the district does in fact care about sustainability and, more importantly, incentivizes community members to contribute to initiatives themselves.

This communication issue is not only limited to food services. The district’s main form of communication on sustainability consists of an untimely, vague section of their website that provides limited insight into initiatives taken. It details certain overarching goals but fails to provide any explanation in regard to their execution and current status. Take, for example, a sentence detailing the district’s goal of achieving net zero waste emissions: “Beginning in the 2015-16 school year, PAUSD and City of Palo Alto entered an innovative collaboration to promote the concept of zero waste across PAUSD’s school campuses.” The district provides no further information and current updates on the subject besides this statement.

By neglecting to communicate its progress and goals, the district forgoes community support and confidence in its initiatives, decreasing their effectiveness. As an organization that prides itself on fostering a community of collaboration, the district should be held accountable when not communicating with its partners. The framework it adopted promises that it will be “making efficiency goals and annual reduction targets public” and “publicizing goals and results.” The framework cannot be effective until the district makes good on these promises.

Still, district initiatives can only be effective if the majority of students stand by them, which is not always the case. For example, pre-pandemic food services experimented with the use of reusable trays at middle and high schools to cut down on single-use waste. However, the trial was short-lived, as students would destroy the reusable items. According to the same survey conducted by The Oracle with 91 responses, 73.6% of Gunn students believe that the student body has not done enough to ensure that their surroundings are eco-friendly. Student attitudes and perspectives on sustainability are crucial components in meeting eco-friendly goals throughout the district. It is undeniable the number of initiative student leaders—including the Student Executive Council, the Sustainable Fashion Club and the Green team—have taken towards making school-wide improvements. No matter the efforts from student-run organizations, though, large-scale change cannot be achieved without help from the majority of students.

Often, making sustainable decisions in schools results in a trade-off that requires students to be flexible and open to new possibilities. Using reusable flatware and other items introduced in food services, for example, will soon require students at Fletcher Middle School to eat in one location as opposed to anywhere on campus. With construction for new food service facilities at Gunn underway, the possibilities for changes in food service practices are more than likely. Students must be open to the possibility of change if they want to see more sustainable practices on campus. Ultimately, sustainability requires the district and students to work collaboratively and hold each other, as well as themselves, responsible for meeting standards. The district must make achievable goals and communicate progress with community members that can hold them accountable. The district must also encourage student participation in policymaking. At the same time, students must uplift themselves to have proactive attitudes toward waste management and be flexible with eco-friendly policies.