Students wanted a seat at the table to advocate for climate change—and they got it

A couple of months ago, Vice President Kamala Harris took a trip to a deserving school district, Denver Public Schools in Colorado, to celebrate their sustainability efforts surrounding climate change. DPS, which leads the U.S. in sustainability, seeks to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions, among other goals, by at least 90% by 2050.

DPS Students for Climate Action Task Force with Vice President Kamala Harris.

The district first began honing in on sustainability efforts in 2009, says LeeAnn Kittle, executive director of sustainability for Denver Public Schools, who has been instrumental in ensuring students have a voice when it comes to driving actionable change through the district’s sustainability initiative. In its early stages, sustainability at DPS primarily focused on energy management but has since expanded thanks to the help of student advocates.

“Over the last three years, we’ve been able to grow the visibility of that through our student voice,” she says. “About 30 students from eight different schools came together during the pandemic to urge our board of education to pass a climate action policy. They met with our board of education directors individually, they met with city council members, and they got endorsements from principals, community leaders, and organizations and then started a petition.”

Kittle says the students also reached out to her office, where she would begin supporting the students by helping them understand how advocacy works and what channels to go through to meet their goals.

“At that time, the students started coming to public comment for the board of education meetings,” she says. “I think they went to every single one for over a year.”

Sustainability has always been a priority at DPS since 2009, she notes. But their sense of urgency came from the students who wanted their voices heard.

“I was feverishly working with my team and other stakeholders to develop a Climate Action Plan, so when that policy came about we knew exactly how we were going to move forward,” says Kittle.

The plan

As part of their Climate Action Plan, the district has established three “North Star Goals” based on feedback from the community—as well as the commitments advocated by the Task Force—that serve as a roadmap and end goals for the district in terms of sustainability. Those goals are:

  • Environmental Protection: Reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by at least 90% by 2050.
  • Economic Prosperity: Reduce natural resources consumption and waste year-over-year.
  • Social Development: All students and staff will be engaged in sustainability by 2050.

Each goal also contains focus areas as well as specific measurable goals and strategies to help direct DPS’ work over the next five years since the Action Plan was published in December of 2022. These include:

  • Built environment (electrification, renewables, etc.) and transportation: Environmental Protection.
  • Resource management and wellness (gardens, greenhouses and nutrition services): Economic Prosperity.
  • Engagement + Environmental Justice and Career + Curriculum: Social development.

“We wanted to make sure we had alignment with all of our frameworks into those three missions,” says Kittle.

The student perspective

The DPS Students for Climate Action Task Force is heavily involved in ensuring that their peers are aware of the Climate Action Plan, Kittle explains. They’ve started an annual summit to detail how the plan works and how others can get involved.

Kittle’s office is also in the midst of engaging with Student Voice and leadership as part of the environmental justice goal.

“We’ll be working with that group of students to help define what environmental justice means,” says Kittle. “Because it was the students who asked us to focus on environmental justice, we want it to be the students who define it for the district. Then, internally, we’ll figure out how to implement that definition.”

“We just make sure they have a voice at the table at all times throughout this process,” she adds. “We are an advisor to the DPS Students of Climate Action, so we give them consistent updates on how the Climate Action Plan is working, making sure that they have an opportunity to give us feedback. They’re also sort of a liaison for sustainability clubs across the district to help bridge the gap at the school level and at the district level.”

How other districts can replicate DPS’ success

“Find your coalition of the willing,” says Kittle. “Where are your yeses?”

That’s the first thing you should ask yourself if you want to mirror what DPS has spearheaded in terms of sustainability. Next, she recommends creating an action plan conducive to that support.

“If your Climate Action Plan is just one or two things and not 24 robust goals like we have, then start there,” she says. “You have to start somewhere.”

But one of the most important components necessary for any new and innovative initiative is to create opportunities for certain voices to be heard.

“We were once housed under facilities and now we report to the chief of staff,” Kittle explains. “I went from a director position to executive director. I think it’s important to recognize that in order to have organizational change and truly reduce your carbon footprint, these types of positions need to have a seat at the table. They need to be part of the strategy. They need to have the ear of senior and district leadership to help understand how to address the challenges among these strategies and tactics. Because at the end of the day, grassroots only takes us so far.”