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An Ever-Greener DA: Sustainability Efforts Further Take Root in Milestone Year

Story by Tina Bessias '78, Sustainability Coordinator

How do people get involved in environmental sustainability? For some, such as Sanju Patel ’23, an endangered animal captures their heart (a frog, in his case). For others, such as Upper School science teacher Andrea Caruso, it was outdoor trips with relatives as she was growing up. For Merritt Schulz ’25, it was innate curiosity about the natural world and the creatures in it; he feels at home tramping around in the woods. Zara Miller ’25 came to sustainability from an artistic perspective: she wanted more of nature’s beauty in urban areas. I got involved when the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report coincided with the birth of a new generation in my family. And for some, it’s a direct experience with fire, flood or crushing heat that awakens a sense of urgency.

In recent years, more and more people at Durham Academy have been feeling the pull to make our own lives and our school more sustainable. In 2022–2023, that effort gained official status through an Innovation Journey Fund grant. We established a Sustainability Leadership Team and contracted with the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education. We learned about the mindsets and enduring understandings that make environmental sustainability possible. Many of these principles are already being taught in scattered places in our curriculum, particularly because there’s overlap with diversity, equity and engagement. In the next few years, we’ll incorporate principles of sustainability systematically in age-appropriate ways.

The Innovation Journey Fund grant also funded work with GreenPlaces, a Raleigh-based firm that analyzed our data on greenhouse gas emissions and is helping us develop reduction strategies. This effort aligns with the global target of 50% reduction by 2030, which was set by the IPCC of the United Nations. As a small but influential part of the world, we are striving to do our part.


Our Sustainability Timeline



Fall DA student-faculty study group forms in response to IPCC report (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) warning of the consequences of a temperature rise beyond 1.5 °C from pre-industrial levels.

Feb Upper School hosts two-day student seminar on climate change, including discussion with IPCC report author and DA parent Dr. Drew Shindell.

Mar A student Sustainability Committee is created through the reorganization of Upper School Student Government.

Apr Composting begins via donor-sponsored contract with CompostNow.



“I am so inspired by the remarkable work of the DA Sustainability Committee. I remember when my friends Andrew Owens [’23], Brandon Caveney [’24] and Will Nichols [’20] founded the Sustainability Club [now a committee of Student Government] with the mission to gauge the Upper School's carbon footprint and develop strategies to reduce emissions and promote environmental consciousness. Their passion and advocacy ignited my interest in learning more about the climate crisis, and since leaving Durham Academy, I have sought numerous opportunities in the climate action space. Last fall, I paused my studies at UNC-Chapel Hill to work with Alon Tal, Israel’s leading environmental activist and a member of the Israeli Parliament. This incredible experience culminated with the privilege of leading a joint American and Israeli youth delegation to the United Nations climate conference known as COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. I would have never pursued this opportunity were it not for my friends on the Sustainability Committee. That is why I am thrilled to see current students continue to promote environmental awareness among their peers today."

Benny Klein ’20




Fall Sustainability Committee launches “Operation Shoe Size,” the first effort to calculate the school’s carbon footprint.

Fall Middle Schoolers join the first year of a two-year Science In Action sustainability elective; students research ecological effects of construction on campus and make suggestions for positive environmental impacts.

Jan Sustainability Committee makes first presentation to the DA Administrative Team, requesting a commitment to a 50% emissions reduction by 2030 and the incorporation of climate change in curriculum.

Mar Upper School creates a new Sustainability Coordinator faculty position.

Apr Sustainability Committee plants 80 trees near Upper School track to absorb CO2 and stormwater.



“Being part of the Sustainability Committee at DA played a huge role in cultivating my interest in the environment, which has continued in college and I hope to incorporate into my future work as well. I'm very passionate about this work because even though DA is only a small part of global carbon emissions, generating a culture of sustainability on campus sets an important foundation for a climate-oriented mindset among DA students who will go on to become key leaders and decision-makers! I'm amazed by the progress that has already been made since I've graduated (especially all of the work that has been done to quantify DA's carbon footprint), and I am so, so proud of all of the students and faculty that have put an incredible amount of time, energy and dedication into making these changes possible. The DA Sustainability Committee will always have a special place in my heart, and I'm so excited to see what they do in the future!”

Mukta Dharmapurikar ’22




Fall Upper School launches Environmental Sustainability elective course.

Jan “Living Sustainably” is added to the ninth-grade Life Skills course.

May Building and Grounds Committee approves Middle School Science In Action students’ proposal for a rain garden to absorb stormwater runoff beside the new Arts & World Languages Center.

Apr Campuses unite for the first schoolwide Earth Week observance, including educational activities and service activities.



“Over the past few years, it has been inspiring to watch the growth of sustainability at DA. With an ever-increasing level of support from both faculty and students, we are driving meaningful change within our community and laying the foundation for future sustainability projects that aim to increase biodiversity and lower our emissions. Our goal is to set an example for what a sustainable school can look like in North Carolina. I am excited to be a part of this movement in the coming years."

Merritt Schulz ’25
Upper School Sustainability Committee
Co-Chair, 2023–2024




Aug “Don’t Waste It!” — DA’s first-ever summer seminar — offers opportunity for students and adults to learn about solid waste, recycling and composting.

Oct Student volunteers do “Dumpster Dive” to audit campus waste.

Nov 21 students representing grades 8 to 12 participate in service-learning seminar “Trees in the Forest, City and Campus,” co-organized by Sustainability Committee and R.A.I.S.E (Raising Awareness for Inclusion and Social Equity) leaders. 

Jan Compost is expanded to Upper School restrooms; landfill-destined waste is reduced by 50%.

May Innovation Journey Fund (IJF) grant enables DA to partner with two sustainability consultants: GreenPlaces (operations) and the Cloud Institute (curriculum). IJF grant also establishes Sustainability Leadership Team with members from all divisions and a schoolwide Sustainability Coordinator role.



I believe these next few years will be monumental in changing Durham Academy’s sustainability goals. The committee is only growing, and I’m excited to see how we can build a better environment for future students. During the Sustain-In, the support and funding we got for sustainable projects was incredible. I only hope that we can keep this momentum up in future years!"

Zara Miller ’25
Upper School Sustainability Committee
Co-Chair, 2023–2024




Aug More than 40 faculty, staff, students, parents and trustees participate in two-day “Educating for Sustainability” workshop presented by Jaimie Cloud.

Sep In first presentation to Board of Trustees, students seek public commitment to sustainability.

Fall Upper School Environmental Sustainability students gather data for the GreenPlaces assessment of DA’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Dec Report on DA greenhouse gas emissions is complete; students and GreenPlaces make a joint presentation to the school community.

Feb DA’s first-ever Sustain-In — a 14-hour community event to develop strategies for decreasing emissions and increasing biodiversity of campuses — is attended by students of all ages, parents, faculty, staff and alumni.

Apr Students and faculty share emissions and carbon footprint study results with Administrative Team and Board of Trustees; they propose specific goals to incorporate sustainability in curriculum, reduce emissions, and increase biodiversity.