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This Leader Channeled Students’ Climate Anxiety Into Action. See How

When LeeAnn Kittle started her job as the first executive director of sustainability for the Denver district in early 2020 , students were already lobbying the school board to commit to drastically reducing the system’s carbon footprint over the next two decades.

Kittle mentored the students as they made their case. Ultimately, the district adopted a climate action policy that gave Kittle an opportunity to reimagine how the school system collects and uses energy.

Among her office’s accomplishments since then: buying 23 electric school buses; raising solar panels over school parking lots; and crafting a comprehensive climate action plan that aims to slash the district’s emissions and waste over the coming decades.

Education Week chatted with Kittle about how she and the students she works with have helped make climate change a priority for Denver schools. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is sustainability work important to the students in your district?

We’re seeing an increase in [the] severity of the wildfires. They’re getting closer and closer to suburban and urban areas. We have had some of the worst air quality over the last few years in the summer from Canadian fires.

We are having heat waves. And given that not all our schools have air conditioning, we’ve had a loss of school days because [students] had to go home because it’s too hot in their school. We have a very diverse student population that is disproportionately impacted by these things. Not all of [the students] have the same access to health care or even mental health resources.

The effects of climate change are happening right here, right now. This isn’t like a future thing anymore. These kids are spending hours upon hours on advocacy work for a livable future. And that is just not a stressor or anxiety I think earlier generations had to deal with.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced doing this sustainability work?

One is always funding: finding the budget to get some of these large ticket items like solar, electrification of our buildings and our [bus] fleet. And then I would say balancing between the advocacy of our students and then the realism of that budget. And then the resistance that comes with that.

But there’s certainly people within the organization that are in a position that are impacted the most. So, for an example, our transportation department taking on new technology [in electric buses] at a time where we’ve got limited resources is a rather difficult challenge. Luckily, we’ve got a very good advocate and leader on sustainability within our transportation team. So, I would say internal resistance as well as funding.

I think maintaining good relationships and interpersonal skills is a big part of what I do.

Where do you get the money for these different initiatives?

The city’s one [source]: bond dollars, bond reserve dollars, some general fund. Then rebates and renewable energy credits and then a ton of grants: federal, state, and local grants.

What advice would you offer to other districts that are looking to do some of this work, in securing that money?

I contracted a grant writer. If you do not have a grant writer on staff, and even if you do, they likely have a nine to five and don’t have time for the amount of grants that are out there right now for sustainability. I would suggest seeing if you can get a contracted grant writer.
The other advice that I would say is that student engagement is incredibly powerful.
Also: making sure you’re at the table when it comes to capital planning. You want to be upfront in those conversations because sustainability can be economically advantageous when done upfront in the design of a particular project. But when it comes in later in the conversation, it ends up being too difficult from a financial standpoint.

We have found that with electrification [replacing natural gas], it’s actually at times economically advantageous. We actually will save money by choosing the sustainable option over status quo.

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