Squalicum High students perform a waste audit and are surprised by some of the findings: photo credit RE Sources

Students in Bellingham Public Schools are enriched by the community partnership with Sustainable Schools, a program of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities. The highlight of this work is the Green Classroom Certification Program in our elementary schools and similar programming in the middle and high schools. This free program helps teachers integrate conservation education into curriculum to help students develop lifelong skills related to environmental education and resource conservation.

Elementary teachers receive prepared project ideas for their classroom, up to 10 hours of in-class facilitation and materials for instruction. The curriculum meets state academic standards, is grade-level appropriate, and encourages students to take initiative for their own learning.

With comparable numbers this school year, in 2017-18, the program saw participation by 37 elementary classrooms. The classroom pledges and action projects highlight our students’ engagement in the community including completing service-learning projects on their school grounds and surrounding community areas such as neighborhood litter clean up and recycling to help keep waterways clean and involvement in the City of Bellingham Walk for Water event. Other classrooms used their pledge to educate others through posters, videos, and energy or waste audit presentations. These are examples of our students demonstrating they are well-rounded community members engaged with the broader world.

The middle and high school program offered 78 workshops in 2017-2018, and according to Priscilla Brotherton, sustainable schools program manager, the middle school numbers are growing this year. Based on the success of the Green Classroom model, curriculum for the older students takes a “deeper dive” into resource conservation and environmental education.

Brotherton shared that students at Options High School learned about stormwater pollution and marked nearby storm drains for public awareness. Other students at Options learned about our waste streams and how to reduce Option’s impact while others “upcycled” in their art classes. A similar curriculum was offered at Sehome, Squalicum, Kulshan, Shuksan, and Whatcom. Of note: After learning about fecal coliform (a stormwater pollutant) students installed a “Mutt Mitt Station” near the playfields at Shuksan!

Other recent programs include  a “recycled” clothing event at Birchwood Elementary which served both as a way to keep textiles out of the landfill, but to also give some back-to-school new-to-you clothing to families. This clothing program was thanks to funding from Ragfinery.

Other Sustainable Schools initiatives in concert with the City of Bellingham included water conservation education (see first grade water tip video from Columbia Elementary linked here) and spring cleaning and maintaining the native plant garden at Whatcom Middle School.

In the future, Sustainable Schools staff hope to help assist in the reduction of waste (both from packaging and food) produced from the Breakfast in the Classroom program and to assist with waste management and recovery for the cafeterias. Waste reduction is an ongoing area of focus as we try to work toward zero waste in our cafeterias and food service program.

Brotherton took a moment answer a few questions about the RE Sources school program she manages.

Tell us why these environmental education activities are so important for students.

Brotheton: In a world where so much time is spent indoors and in the virtual world, it is imperative that students connect with the natural world. Additionally, research shows spending time in nature enhances educational outcomes by improving academic performance, focus, behavior, and love of learning (childrenandnature.org/research). Youth are experiencing “ecological grief” and showing them that there is something they can do about it, a way to change the course of the trajectory is so important.

What are the biggest takeaways after students join in these activities?

Brotherton: We want the students to know that they can take action – even the smallest change in behavior can make a difference. We want them to feel empowered to take action, as they are the future leaders.

Can you share some  ‘aha’ moments for students? 

Brotherton: At Fairhaven Middle School, students gasped and pointed at the whiteboard while one student yelled to the class “Everyone look! To make one burger it takes 660 gallons of water!”. Many students are shocked to learn about the direct and indirect uses of water in their daily lives.

After implementing a waste audit at SQHS a junior in the environmental club asked with exasperation, ” Why haven’t I learned about this before?”


  1. I LOVE it! Couldn’t be more thrilled and excited. Glad that adults are trying tio preserve and teach prevention among other great qualities to have toward earth.

  2. Bellingham Public Schools stores more than 70 diesel buses directly within the Critical Areas Ordinance buffer zone for habitat along 1,000 feet of Whatcom Creek’s shoreline.

    They have done this for 63 years and, now, despite massive pressure from local citizens begging them to stop and reconsider, they insist on going forward with investing $3.5 million in this so-called ‘Bus Barn’ facility to perpetuate this environmental abuse for decades to come.

    As was the case ten years ago, when various agencies and groups asked Bellingham Public Schools to move, there are now official comments on record from the Sierra Club of Whatcom County, the Greenways Advisory Committee, the York Neighborhood Association, and dozens of community members opposed to this plan and the clear harm it does to this iconic and central salmon-bearing creek.

    The Bellingham Public Works and Natural Resources Department has also implored the School District to relocate over the years.

    They have confirmed, again, that any effort to restore this section of creek would be effectively meaningless unless the buses move and allow adequate space to restore the riparian zone to functional habitat — there is not enough room, period, and the rocks holding the current fence line in place (in the form of burst-open Gabion blocks) will not sustain trees in a piddling 20-40 foot buffer which, nowadays, would be flatly illegal.

    I personally appreciate the programming and partnerships that ReSources and other local environmental advocacy groups provide to Bellingham Public Schools.

    There is a difference, however, between promoting their good work and the perpetual stonewalling and ignoring the other members of this community who have repeatedly asked for a better outcome for Whatcom Creek: These are taxpayers dollars being spent on publicly owned property: there is no scientific or ecological argument that can defend this horrible location to store buses: the elected School Board and the taxpayer-paid staff of the School District has never once acknowledged that this is a problematic location and, as evidence, they will invest millions to ensure that this community will not have a chance to address this problem for decades to come.

    Teaching kids about the environment is great.

    Now we need to do the harder work and find a way to reach this $100 million per-year local government, Bellingham Public Schools, and get them on board with environmental stewardship as well.

  3. I posted earlier regarding the school district’s $3.5 million Bus Barn project and site on Whatcom Creek.

    My views on this are shared by a broad spectrum of the local environmental community.

    I do not see my comment posted and now wonder if Bellingham Public Schools is selectively deleting criticism of their environmental practices.

    If that is the case, please be aware that publicly-funded institutions cannot legally censor or edit or delete posts submitted by constituents: within the constraints of civil discourse and debate on matters of public concern, there are requirements for how these forums are managed so as to not silence valid criticism from citizens.

    • Hello Alex, thank you for your comment.

      We checked in with our executive director of capital projects and school facilities, Ron Cowan, who indicated you two have spoken multiple times over the past few months and that he’s answered your questions and offered to meet with you one-on-one. He’s happy to meet or talk with you if you have other questions about the scope of the project.

      We did not take any action related to your comment. We do not and will not delete criticism of our environmental or other practices. We monitor our website and social media Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

      Ron would also like to clarify a few things that you mentioned in your comments:

      The district has not engaged in ‘perpetual stonewalling and ignoring the other members of this community who have repeatedly asked for a better outcome for Whatcom Creek’ as you stated. We have met with numerous individuals and groups to listen to concerns related to the creek and explain our project. Individuals and groups include representatives from the Sierra Club of Whatcom County, the Greenways Advisory Committee, the York Neighborhood Association, Bellingham Public Works and Natural Resources Department (specifically to talk about the riparian zone you mention), RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, and dozens of community members.

      In addition, we have provided telephone and/or written responses to those who have contacted us about concerns related to our project.

      As you can see, the district has very much acknowledged the concerns that the buses we park on the site have an adverse impact on Whatcom Creek. To date, we have not been presented with a single piece of data supporting those concerns. Anecdotally, we visited the fish hatchery on Whatcom Creek and learned that they use unfiltered water from Whatcom Creek in their operations. It is important to note that our buses are stringently maintained (serviced every 2,000 miles or 90 days whichever comes first) and annually inspected by the Washington State Patrol (some buses twice a year). We seldom encounter any fluid leaks but if we do, they are immediately corrected. Also, we do not fuel our buses on site so there is no chance of a fuel spill into the creek.

      So, while we have certainly acknowledged the concerns, we respectfully disagree that the renovation of the existing building used to service and maintain our bus fleet will have a detrimental impact on the adjacent creek.

      For reference, we have a transportation garage FAQ (https://bellinghamschools.org/transportation-garage-faq/) that might be helpful.

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