Case study: Chatham Primary School works with community to become a leader in sustainability

Chatham Primary School, located in the Melbourne eastern suburb of Surrey Hills, has become a community leader in sustainability, thanks to the combined efforts of its teachers, parents, students and the wider community.

The school’s sustainability focus began with a vegetable garden in 2004, initially set up as part of a life skills program for the school’s special needs students. Since then, they’ve installed solar panels, put in water tanks for the oval, instituted rubbish free lunches, and planted a series of gardens, including a vegetable garden, to create biodiversity.

Chatham signed up to the ResourceSmart AuSSI Vic initiative in 2009 and in 2013 became a 5 Star school – the pinnacle of the initiative. By getting involved in ResourceSmart AuSSI Vic, the school was able to formalise their sustainability activities by gaining structure. The initiative also provided the opportunity to analyse results, learn from other schools and recognise and celebrate successes. A band of passionate staff and parents started the Sustainability and Environment Committee, which reports to the whole school about its sustainability actions via the school council.

5 Star status helps the school to stand out and attracts opportunities

“We’re very time poor at this school, so we really need the parents’ help,” said Sustainability Coordinator Susan Doherty. “Time is our biggest challenge.” She said the parents were instrumental in driving the school to achieve Sustainability Certification.

Chatham’s 5 Star status helps to differentiate it from the many other primary schools in the area. Surrey Hills is popular with young families and has a high-earning demographic. Parents have a wide range of choices when deciding on a school for their child. Chatham’s 5 Star status also attracts invitations and opportunities by signalling that the school is serious about sustainability – for example, Greening Australia comes to the school and takes a class on revegetation activities each year.

Partnering with local council and CERES

Boroondara Council started their sustainability focus at the same time as Chatham Primary School, and they have worked to help the school along the way, including financing sustainability projects and inviting the school to various sustainability events. “They’ve been sensational,” said Susan. In turn, Chatham provides the venue for a series of workshops the council runs for local residents on topics as diverse as habitat and backyard chooks.

CERES, a not-for-profit educational organisation in East Brunswick that facilitates ResourceSmart AuSSI Vic for schools in its region, also helped the school to get involved in sustainability projects, by offering invitations, encouragement and advice. These strong networks have been invaluable.

Students teaching students

Every Chatham student assumes a leadership role in grade six. This year, the six environment leaders have taken over an unused portable classroom as Enviro HQ. They’re using the space to run classes for the junior school, teaching them about why it’s important to put rubbish in the proper bins. (Every classroom has a compost bin, a recycle bin and a landfill bin.) “It works,” said Susan. “Because they’re hearing about it from other kids. I think they pay a lot more attention when it’s coming from their peers.” Grade two teacher Glenda Kelly said that after her class participated in a class taught by the year six environment leaders, it led to further conversations about recycling in her classroom.

The grade six environment leaders also regularly present at assembly about topics such as bottled water, Keep Australia Beautiful Victoria and palm oil. For inaugural World Orangutan Day, they visited every classroom with a PowerPoint presentation about orangutans and the way palm oil plantations take over their habitat. Their presentations educate other students about sustainability issues, and introduce conversations around sustainability into the school. They also give the environment leaders the opportunity to develop public speaking skills, and confidence in themselves and their ability to make a difference.

“Being an Environment Leader has definitely affected me and my family,” said grade six student Tom Yakubowski. “I am always hassling Mum and Dad to be sustainable and we now ride our bikes everywhere we can.”

Getting the whole school on board

Every grade in the school has a sustainability task – for example, one class is responsible for rinsing and emptying compost bins once a week, while another collects water flow from buckets underneath the school’s taps to water the garden.

Energy monitors in each class are responsible for turning heating off and air conditioners down.

Embedding sustainability in the curriculum

Susan and Assistant Principal Bronwyn Orr are working on a plan for 2014 that will embed sustainability in the curriculum across the school. This will help ease Susan’s burden of administering all the school’s environmental tasks, and make it easy for teachers to incorporate sustainability into their lessons. This has recently become more important than ever, after sustainability became one of the Australian Curriculum (AusVELS) cross-curriculum priorities in 2013. This makes it mandatory for schools to find a way to incorporate sustainability into the teaching of mathematics, English, science and history.

The grade four class that currently empties the recycling bins into the skip will also measure the rubbish and keep track of it over the year. Another class will enter electricity bills into the ResourceSmart AuSSI Vic online data management system and track it, using the data in their maths classes.

Parents pitching in

Parents helped start Chatham’s Sustainability and Environment Committee and achieve the school’s 5 Star status. They also help out with a wide range of sustainability activities, from applying for grants to coordinating parent groups to work in the garden or on treeplanting days. One parent organised for a landscape designer (also a Chatham parent) to design the school’s Koori Garden and for a local Indigenous elder to open the garden. The garden contributes to the school’s biodiversity, and also educates students about Indigenous Victorians’ connection to the land, providing a tactile and visual representation of Indigenous plants.This links to the AusVELS unit in Indigenous studies.

“It’s about role modelling for our kids, reinforcing our shared commitment to the school’s values,” said Susy Montagner, convenor of the Sustainability and Environment Committee and president of the School Council. “Sustainability is very much a partnership between child, parent and teachers.”

Emphasising financial savings to attract wider support

Chatham Primary’s sustainability measures – especially those designed to save energy and water – save money too. Susy believes that it’s been important to highlight those savings for the parent community, to convince those who might otherwise be sceptical about the amount of effort that the school invests in sustainability.

“You bring more people on board if you can show them the economic benefits of sustainability initiatives,” she said.