Whether it’s buying school buses, installing solar panels, or replacing HVAC systems, deciding how schools get and use their energy is usually a job reserved for the grown-ups in a district.
But LeeAnn Kittle, the executive director of sustainability for the Denver public schools, believes that when it comes to making a district’s operations more environmentally-friendly, students should be an integral part of the process.
The work offers invaluable learning opportunities that can help prepare students for a labor market changing with the climate. Maybe more importantly: Students are powerful ambassadors for sustainability.
Under Kittle’s leadership, the roughly 88,000-student district has implemented an ambitious climate action plan. It has launched a project-based-learning initiative that gives students up to $25,000 to make their schools more environmentally sustainable. It is erecting solar panels to power schools and lower families’ utility bills. And it’s leading the state in electrifying its school bus fleet.
For Kittle, accomplishing all this in just three years has meant forging partnerships with city government and overcoming the powerful forces of inertia and resistance that often derail sustainability initiatives.
“There are many folks who are leaders who captivate and motivate,” said Denver Superintendent Alex Marrero. “But she has a radiant quality about her, and when she gets into her passion, it becomes contagious. When she shows up in the room, she just takes over.”
That’s especially important in a leader championing sustainability, he said, because climate change can feel like a far-off problem—even for people who take it seriously—and is easily relegated to the back burner. Only about 100 school districts across the country have sustainability positions like Kittle’s.
Her most important partnership has been with the students themselves. She’s helped high schoolers channel their anxiety about the increasingly intense wildfires, heat waves, and droughts they’re witnessing into advocacy and action. Student-led efforts to push the district to adopt policies to shrink its carbon footprint have been recognized by the White House—twice.
The power of student activism
Ever since she was a kid, Kittle remembers preferring to be outside, getting her hands dirty. She grew up on the west side of Cleveland in a tight-knit family. But while her three brothers were all gifted in academics, Kittle said she never truly fit in a traditional classroom setting.
After high school, she struggled to find a path that meshed with her abilities and interests.
“There were lots of tears in my youth.” Kittle, 39, said. Then, in college at Cleveland State University, “I took an environmental science class on a whim because I love nature, and that professor was so engaging and so passionate about what she taught, I never looked back.”
From there, Kittle co-founded an environmental and sustainability club on campus. She co-led an effort to raise a quarter of a million dollars to install a green roof at her university. She parlayed that work into a part-time job, persuading the university to hire her as its first energy-conservation specialist.
Kittle’s time at Cleveland State University undergirds her focus on students today.
She experienced firsthand the power of student activism. And she knows that including students in renewable-energy projects will expose them to job possibilities in high-growth sectors.
But most importantly, it helps ease students very real anxiety about climate change.
Between their energy use, transportation, and food waste, schools in the United States are a substantial source of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, which get trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere, causing global temperatures to rise and long-term weather patterns to change.
“It’s important to show that as an organization as large as [the Denver district is], we’re taking it seriously,” she said. “The only way to combat climate anxiety among our youth is through collective action. We’re trying to change the narrative from crisis and get them excited about finding a solution.”
When Kittle started at the Denver school system in early 2020, a group of students from eight schools were lobbying the school board to pass a climate action policy. Kittle wasn’t allowed to advocate a specific strategy, given her position in the district. But she supported the students by helping them build the skills—in organization and public speaking—to make their advocacy more effective.
She also taught them persistence, said Gabriel Nagel, a former Denver student who co-founded the advocacy group.
“The process of passing the policy was not easy,” he said. “There was a point where I was really losing hope; there were a lot of board drama and tension, and it felt like our policy wouldn’t actually make it after two years of work. She just reminded me: To get important stuff done requires constant effort. You can’t be willing to give up the fight too easily. That helped encourage me and the rest of the group.”
Kittle would regularly attend the student group’s weekly Zoom meetings on Wednesday evenings. Nagel remembers Kittle sometimes calling in from her car as she ran errands or breaking from the meeting to tuck her kindergartner into bed.
Her dedication meant a lot to the students, said Nagel, who is now a freshman at Stanford University and a member of a newly established youth-advisory committee to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Whenever you’re talking with her, she is fully engaged, her whole presence is there,” he said. “Sometimes, she prioritizes youth more than the adults, which I think is good because a district is mostly made of students.”
Outlining concrete goals, taking aggressive action
It took more than two years of advocacy, but the Denver school board unanimously passed a climate action statement—a short verbal commitment to become a national leader in climate action and resource conservation.
It was a tall order—and exactly the one Kittle needed.
Armed with that mandate, Kittle and her team turned to making the statement into a five-year road map to reduce natural resource consumption and waste year over year and put the district on a path to slashing its overall emissions by at least 90 percent by 2050. Kittle has continued to seek students’ input throughout the development and implementation of the plan, which also aims to engage all students and staff in sustainability.
Kittle’s team started by calculating how much the district emitted in greenhouse gases in 2010, 2016, and 2021 to get a baseline to build goals from. They found that electricity and natural gas used to heat and cool buildings produced the vast majority of the district’s emissions. Transportation—including from school buses and employees’ cars as they commute to work—was the second largest source of emissions.
The district has installed heat pumps in 10 schools and has plans for more. It has purchased 23 electric yellow buses—three of which are already on the roads.
The district is already seeing substantive cost savings from Kittle and her team’s work. In 2023, it saved more than $5 million from its roughly $1 billion budget through various initiatives, such as selling renewable-energy credits and retrofitting all district lights with energy efficient replacements.
Kittle’s focus on concrete goals and especially her embrace of student involvement stand out to Laura Schifter, a senior fellow with This Is Planet Ed., an initiative of the nonprofit Aspen Institute. The initiative is advocating for schools to take more aggressive action on shrinking their carbon footprints and researching and distributing best practices on how districts can do so.
Schifter is closely watching around 15 districts across the country that are aggressively tackling climate change.
“I think the work has been really exciting to follow in DPS,” she said. “One thing that stands out is that [its climate action plan] is very tied to metrics and clear objectives and goals aligned to it. The other thing that stands out to me is the collaborative nature of the development of the plan and bringing students to the table, which I think is impressive.”
The Denver students who advocated the climate action policy were recognized in 2022 with the President’s Environmental Youth Award. In June 2023, Vice President Kamala Harris visited the district and highlighted the accomplishments of its student climate activists.
Giving students the skills a ‘traditional classroom does not provide’
Kittle’s work with students didn’t stop with the climate action plan. Her latest initiative aims to create opportunities for project-based learning in sustainability.
Her department has partnered with the city of Denver to fund student-led climate action projects. Student groups from across the district submitted 20 proposals for a first round of mini grants of up to $25,000, from a pot of $225,000, paid for by the city.
The winning projects include a plan to install bike racks at one school, an initiative to plant trees at another, and a proposal to buy three solar picnic tables where students can harness the sun’s energy to charge their cellphones and other devices.
Kittle said she wants to give students the chance she didn’t get until college to find their path in life—exploring careers in a field that is only going to grow as climate change intensifies.
“Being able to give students the opportunity to work on project-based learning [in] sustainability helps them recognize their skill sets that maybe a traditional classroom does not provide,” she said. “I want these kids to know: Just because you can’t sit down at a desk, read something, and get straight A’s, doesn’t mean that you don’t have something to offer this world.”
Solar canopies, goats, and vegetable gardens
The district is also leveraging its sustainability projects as an opportunity to give students hands-on training in clean-energy jobs. Students at Northeast Early College have helped install and maintain a solar canopy the district and city partnered on to build over the parking lot at their high school. The canopy, a series of carports covered in solar panels, not only helps power the school but also lowers the utility bills of low-income families in the district through the sale of energy credits.
Kittle envisions these projects having an impact beyond school campuses. She sees the district as part of a larger community ecosystem. Everything is connected, and the system can only thrive if all parts are supported and healthy.
It’s why Kittle and her team strive to share the fruits of their labor with the broader community—literally. Sixty-two schools in the district have vegetable gardens that grew 107,000 pounds of produce last year. Some schools even have chickens to lay eggs and goats to keep the grass short. A lot of that produce ends up in local food banks.
“It’s a very cyclical relationship where it’s giving back to the community, getting the community excited to engage in these initiatives,” Kittle said
That, in turn, helps build support for the district’s ambitious climate plans.
Still, Kittle has faced pushback to the initiatives she’s led, even in a district, city, and state that is overall supportive of addressing climate change.
While not rooted in ideology, the opposition is still there, said Kittle.
“I have worked in more progressive and conservative environments,” she said. “There is resistance everywhere because it’s change, and everyone has some level of discomfort with change.”
A significant source of resistance for Kittle—and one that she is sympathetic to—is that these projects take a lot of work, and the heavy lifting of retooling how the district gets and uses its energy doesn’t fall equally on all departments. For example, electrifying Denver’s bus fleet means the transportation department will be adopting a new technology while dealing with long-standing staffing shortages.
In these circumstances, Kittle said her mantra is the rule: “Seek first to understand then to be understood” from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
“I know how to really engage folks because no matter where they are on the topic, they’re going to relate to finances, the environment, or enhancing our community,” Kittle said. And when she struggles to find the right hook, she knows she can always turn to the students to help combat climate change. “Student engagement is incredibly powerful. Empowering them helps the mission and, quite frankly, helps the larger mission of K-12.”