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Green Schools: Boise School District students push for sustainability, renewable energy

Graphic by Alieha Dryden

Almost four years ago, Boise School District (BSD) superintendent Coby Dennis came to administrators within the district with a vision: create a sustainable learning environment for all students. 

This vision planted the seeds and has since been altered by current high school students who seek a change in their district’s sustainable energy plan. 

Boise High School juniors Shiva Rajbhandari and Flannery Streiff, along with Timberline High School senior Sneha Sharma and other students, have come together to create a resolution pushing for a commitment from BSD to 100% clean energy by 2035 and a goal to reduce transportation and thermal energy emission by 2025.

The result is an intergenerational effort among students and educators — from elementary schools to Boise State — to create a plan for BSD’s place in the city’s efforts to curb climate change, in the name of the students whose lives it will affect most.

Streamlining Sustainability

Clean energy starts within each of the schools in the BSD, promoting the establishment of Green Schools. Green Schools is a project that aims to conserve energy, eliminate waste and save taxpayers money.

BSD’s science and sustainability supervisor, Chris Taylor, has been part of the Green Schools Project for four years and has worked with Boise State University to create a plan that entails both student involvement and focus groups. Taylor is also working on his doctorate at Boise State University, in which he has been able to make connections with professors on the topic of climate change and Green Schools. 

Taylor has encouraged student leaders to use their voices and influence their generation and those younger than them to continue the climate change conversation. 

“One of the biggest projects that we’re working on this year is getting more green teams, which are sustainability clubs at our schools,” Taylor said. “We have 50 schools and we have about 20 green teams right now, but most of those are in our secondary schools.”

With this power and enthusiasm, this group of individuals is also working to streamline the idea of this resolution to primary schools within the district.

Graphic by Alieha Dryden | The Arbiter

“My biggest goal is to get the elementary schools involved, because kids, like Shiva, are going to graduate very soon, and I just need that pipeline to continue,” Taylor said.

Building a coalition of students

Shiva Rajbandari created the Green Club at his former junior high school, then founded it once again when he entered high school to pipeline climate change conversations and enact change within the school district. 

“In order to achieve this clean energy future that we’re all talking about, it starts with local action and it starts in schools,” said Rajbhandari. “So we have a coalition of students from all four Boise high schools working towards getting a resolution passed, hopefully by the end of this year by the Boise School District Board of Trustees.”

The committee behind the resolution and the Green Schools Project includes more than just Taylor and his faculty members. In the beginning, they only had three people attend a meeting. Just last week, according to Taylor, they had over 40 people show up. This group consisted of Boise School District staff, custodians, community members and even Boise State professor Dr. Jen Pierce. 

Taylor, however, credits the students who have become more involved over the past four years. 

“The biggest piece is the students. The students are really the ones I want to empower to drive our direction,” Taylor said.

In addition to the Green Clubs across the district, Rajbhandari and his peers have been involved in the Idaho Climate Justice League, a program of the Idaho Sierra Club and the Sierra Student Coalition. 

At just 6 years old, Timberline High School senior Sneha Sharma realized that climate change was affecting more than just her Boise community, but also her family’s community in India. She never got to experience her family’s farm in the state of Rajasthan for what it once was, with running water and abundant crops. Instead, local water management, pollution and alternating droughts and floods took that opportunity away.

Aside from her adolescent realization of climate change’s reality, Sneha Sharma has also been involved in creating this resolution towards clean energy. Sharma has faced many uphill battles since joining forces with Rajbhandari and other students and staff of the Boise School District. But, this is only the beginning. 

“Through this organization, I’ve really seen how much of a difference youth voices can make,” said Sharma. “Our club is mainly high school students, but we’ve been trying to get elementary school students involved and it’s crazy to see how much we can do at a young age. We have a lot of power.”

Since the spark of this resolution and the project as a whole, many successes have come about within the district. Chris Taylor has seen a lot of change from the four-year sustainability  dedication he has put forth. 

“We’ve saved over six and a half million kilowatt hours, which in money, converts into close to $400,000,” Taylor said. “The amount of metric tons of carbon that we’ve saved just in these four years for these 10 schools is close to 2,000 metric tons of carbon that we haven’t put in the atmosphere.”

These savings are being recognized, and voices are being heard. There have been many positive outbreaks of progress towards a cleaner future, which reinstates hope back into the minds of these optimistic high school students.

“Because of the work we’ve done, we [received] a national award from the U.S. Department of Energy called the 50001 Ready, and our 10 schools that are part of this program actually got this award last year for doing that work,” Taylor said. 

With the momentum of the resolution, students and staff who are involved are hopeful to see change within the town that they grew up in. 

Boise High junior Flannery Streiff is yet another student involved in this project. Streiff found inspiration to voice her opinions from kids her age like 18-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg, who is known for her activism in environmental crises and climate change mitigation. 

“I think my generation might be kind of unique in that everything that happened with Greta Thunberg seemed to coincide with the time that I was learning about climate change in school,” said Streiff. “So developmentally, we have just grown up with the climate awareness movement, and that’s what sparked my interest.”

Flannery and those of her age group were amongst some of the students who learned about climate change in school before the Idaho Legislature removed it from the K-12 curriculum plan

This is yet another example of how the state of Idaho has remained silent on the topic of climate change but still serves as a large source of motivation for these students to present this resolution and create more Green Schools.

“I was lucky enough to be taught about climate change,” Streiff said, “but that’s not a privilege that a lot of kids are going to have moving forward.”

The Resolution

The long-term goals of this resolution will benefit more than just the current students within the district, but will also benefit those who will attend these schools for years to come. This resolution also aims to save money for each of these schools. 

“We’re asking the board to assemble a committee that would draft this plan within the next year,” Rajbhandari said. “And the reason this sustainability plan is so important is because this is actually where the money-saving comes from.”

At this point in time, these students and their faculty mentors are working to build a following behind their resolution and to build a plan to create more Green Schools across the BSD.  

“We are working to find teachers to help talk to their district coordinators and we’re working with our school administrators … because really, the way the Boise school district works is in a bureaucracy,” Rajbhandari said. “We’d really like to secure means with those people and that comes through working with administration and teachers and having really engaging conversations.”

As Rajbhandari, Sharma and Streiff all mentioned, without these connections and conversations, nothing will get accomplished. With the help of their mentors, these students have the ability to influence the aforementioned bureaucracy that is the district. 

“Chris Taylor actually has been a really great mentor for me, a lot of my teachers have because, you know, they help navigate this bureaucracy and help connect me with other student leaders across the district to make a change,” Rajbhandari said.

For these students, there have been some frustrations and challenges along the way. Patience is a key factor to this journey to the district office and the students still feel as if they are not being heard, despite their efforts. 

“Because we’re students, it’s definitely been hard to be paid attention to sometimes, which has been frustrating,” Streiff said. “These are deadlines that need to get done and can’t wait.” 

Taylor mentioned that the student’s ambitions can clash with the expected expediency of their goals at times, but education remains at the forefront of this whole journey. 

Gaining a following among teachers and administrators with power behind their voice is what these high school students strive for. 

“It’s about making connections and getting teachers [and parents] on our side,” Sharma said. “We can really show the district that everyone is impacted by climate change and outreach is huge when getting your voice heard. More voices are stronger than just one person.”

This is and has been a long road for these ambitious students, but their resiliency and well-thought-out resolution will make the journey that much more valuable. Little by little, their voices are being heard by board members and those involved in the decision-making for the BSD. 

“The district’s motto is ‘educating today for a better tomorrow,’ but I’d like to see the Boise School District also make a commitment to take action today to protect tomorrow,” Rajbhandari said. “I’d also like to see a dedication to making sure that students have a livable future and that we have something to grow up in and have a world that’s still intact by the time we’re able to create that better tomorrow.”

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