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Two young men plant trees in a field as horses look on from behind a wooden fence.

East High School Sustainability Club Co-president Gabriel Nagel, left, grabs blue spruce saplings as member Jack Antonson finishes a hole for the tree on a property in Boulder County, during the club’s tree-planting event on Saturday. DPS Students for Climate Action is pushing the Denver district to strengthen climate change mitigation.

‘A livable future’: Denver students push sustainability policies

Denver Public Schools has one electric school bus, solar panels in 46 locations, and 126 school and community gardens. But students are pushing the district to do more and become a national leader on climate action, sustainability, and environmental justice.

“I really want to ensure a livable future for me and my generation,” Amelia Fernández Rodríguez, a freshman at DSST: Conservatory Green high school, recently told the school board. She is a member of a group called DPS Students for Climate Action.

The board is expected to pass a set of brief policies Thursday with potentially big effects. The policies would direct the district to conserve natural resources and minimize its carbon footprint by adopting clean energy technology and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

The policies would also require the district to mitigate the impacts of climate change on marginalized groups and prepare students for the shift to the green economy. 

“All students will be conscientious citizens who take bold action on the climate crisis post-graduation,” one proposed policy says.

Even though the district is already taking steps to address climate change, officials said the new policies represent a more meaningful mandate because they came from students.

“They’re standing up for themselves and saying we need to be prepared for these challenges,” said Director of Sustainability LeeAnn Kittle. “Sure, we’re going to continue down this path regardless but now there’s a sense of urgency knowing that they feel a sense of urgency.”

The policies are known as “ends statements,” which are akin to goals for the 90,000-student district. Under a new governance structure adopted by the school board last year, the board votes on ends statements, which the superintendent uses to guide the district.

Board members said they are amazed and inspired by the students’ passion.

“When you all get to sit in these seats and your kids are in schools, or maybe even earlier, you’ll be able to look back and recognize the work you’ve done in 2022 has had a long-lasting impact,” board Vice President Tay Anderson said, addressing the students.

DPS Students for Climate Action has been working on the policies for a year. Students from several high schools across the city came together last winter and, inspired by students in Salt Lake City who pushed their school board to adopt a sustainability resolution, began working on a similar policy for Denver.

The students, most of whom are also members of their schools’ sustainability clubs, had support from a Denver parent, district officials, and school board members who attended the group’s meetings.

“I don’t want to leave without having done something and leaving an impact,” said Gabriel Nagel, a junior at East High School. “And we have the unique chance as students to push that change.”

A young man holds a shovel in one hand and a sapling in the other, posing for a portrait on a gravel road.

East High School Sustainability Club Co-president Gabriel Nagel’s climate activism started soon after a wildfire came within blocks of his home some years ago.

The students’ goals for the district were lofty: 100% clean electricity by 2030 and a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. While the goals haven’t changed, the proposed policies are aspirational and don’t spell out specifics. That will come later, Kittle said, driven by a sustainability management plan the district has commissioned from a local firm to help determine the feasibility of the goals and a timeline to accomplish them.

In addition to commissioning the plan, Kittle said the district has also:

  • Installed LED lighting districtwide.
  • Put solar panels on the rooftops of 45 district buildings and one ground-level site.
  • Partnered with the city of Denver to install a solar canopy — like a carport with solar panels on top — at Northeast Early College high school next summer.
  • Bought its first grant-funded electric bus and charging station last fall, with plans to purchase two more buses and a second charging station.
  • Established 126 gardens on district property, including 38 community gardens.
  • Used federal COVID relief funds to update school heating and ventilation systems.
  • Worked with the Colorado Energy Office to upgrade its facilities and save energy costs.
  • Contracted with its waste hauler to do composting at about 50 schools.

Maya Kitei, a junior at South High School, said Denver Public Schools needs to do more because climate change affects every staff member, student, and family.

A group of high school students pose for a portrait in a parking lot, holding shovels and tree saplings.

The East High School Sustainability Club held a Tree-Plenish event on April 16, planting saplings in different neighborhoods across the Denver metro area.

“Our futures depend on us taking action,” she said.

Students want to ensure the district moves boldly.

“We all started learning about this from a young age,” said East High junior Mariah Rosensweig. “It can become overwhelming to see as you’re growing up — ‘Oh my gosh, this is the state of the world.’ We’re legitimately terrified and for good reason. So we’re trying to instill that into the adults.”

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.