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DA Sustainability Efforts Take on New Energy
Story by Melody Guyton Butts

Environmental sustainability isn’t new to Durham Academy — there have long been knowledgeable, dedicated champions of Earth-friendly choices among the school’s faculty and student body. But over the past several months, those sustainability stalwarts have begun to feel greater support from the broader Durham Academy community in the form of increased funding and enthusiasm. 

In May, one of the initial grants from DA’s Innovation Journey Fund — which makes use of funding reassigned from other areas of the school’s budget in order to fuel the kind of innovation called for by the Strategic Vision — enabled the school to begin partnering with two sustainability consultants:

  • Green Places, which is helping DA to gauge and reduce the environmental impact of operational choices;

  • and the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education, which is offering coaching to faculty, staff and students looking to infuse sustainability into the school’s curriculum.

“It’s as close as we get to a watershed moment,” Head of School Michael Ulku-Steiner said at the start of a two-day workshop led by Cloud Institute founder Jaimie Cloud for DA faculty, staff, students, trustees and parents this summer. “There have been so many good things happening in the realm of sustainability at DA for a long time. … But this is the moment when collectively we say we want to organize ourselves. We don’t want just a thousand points of light, we want to be in a laser-like, focused, prioritized, purposeful way of embracing sustainability.”

Sustainability was the theme of 2022 summer reading offerings for faculty and staff, who read one of 12 titles, ranging from The Omnivore’s Dilemma to Braiding Sweetgrass. 

For DA sustainability coordinator Tina Bessias ’78, a faculty member since 1993, the excitement is palpable: “It feels like a major increase in attention and collaborative effort throughout the whole school on something that a handful of adults and several generations of students have been working on since the fall of 2018.”

Bessias’ role as Durham Academy’s sustainability coordinator (she continues to also serve as the Upper School’s independent learning coordinator) was previously focused on the Upper School, but now involves acting as project manager for efforts on each of Durham Academy’s campuses. The Innovation Journey Fund resulted in the establishment of the Sustainability Leadership Team:

  • Denise Shaw (Preschool science teacher)

  • Tracy Riddle (second-grade teacher)

  • Dr. Theresa Shebalin (Middle School science teacher)

  • Karl Schaefer (Middle School STEAM coordinator)

  • Andrea Caruso (Upper School science teacher)

  • Kathy Pierce (Middle School administrative assistant)

  • Ann Leininger (Parents Association sustainability chair)

  • Sanju Patel ’23 (Upper School student)

  • Tina Bessias ’78 (sustainability coordinator)

This team is working to bolster existing sustainability initiatives such as composting and recycling; support teachers looking to make curricular changes with the help of the Cloud Institute; and facilitate Green Places’ data collection (and, eventually, take action on the data that is collected).

Green Places: Operational Sustainability

Green Places, a Raleigh-based startup that partners with businesses around the nation to reduce their environmental impact, is working with students in a new Upper School elective course taught by Bessias, Environmental Sustainability. Through this partnership, students are helping to gather the campus-specific data necessary for Green Places to calculate DA’s carbon footprint. 

“So we have a really big, scary spreadsheet where we have to find a lot of data about water use and energy use and purchases of furniture and printers and toner and paper and transportation to all of our away events,” Bessias said with a smile. “It’s a really holistic look at DA’s resource use and greenhouse gas emissions.”  

For example, students plan to take a thorough tour of each of DA’s campuses and document the make, model and year of each refrigerator and ice machine they find. That information will be shared with Green Places, which will use it as part of the carbon footprint calculation.

Bessias’ goal is for Environmental Sustainability students to be ready to share the results — via a report or presentation of some sort in partnership with Green Places — with the DA community in December.

The student-led Sustainability Committee of Upper School Student Government is dreaming up ways to engage the broader DA community to brainstorm solutions, perhaps through a “hackathon” in early 2023. Ulku-Steiner has also invited the student Sustainability Committee to talk about the school’s efforts at the September meeting of the Durham Academy Board of Trustees.

The Cloud Institute: Sustainability in Curriculum 

More than 40 members of the DA community — teachers from each division, students, parents, staff members, administrators, and members of the Parents Association and Board of Trustees — attended the Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education workshop from Aug. 9–10. Walking into the Middle School’s Horton Hall at the start of the workshop, many of the participants may have expected to hear more of the practical tips common to such seminars and to perhaps leave feeling a sense of despair. Rather, those in attendance spent much of the two days learning about cognitive science — how to facilitate shifts to mental models geared toward a sustainable future. And they left the workshop feeling a sense of hope — that especially through young people, positive change is possible.

“If we do the math [for how to not deplete resources], get creative, contribute to the regeneration of the places in which we live, and develop social contracts for the use and care of the natural commons over time, people can live well on Earth indefinitely,” said workshop leader Jaimie Cloud, a pioneer in the field of sustainability education and founder of the Cloud Institute.

The next step is the creation of an initial cohort of faculty and students — about 20 have expressed interest — in embarking on projects to incorporate sustainability into their curriculum. Thanks to the Innovation Journey Fund grant, Cloud will work with the cohort on an ongoing basis as a coach.

“I think that Jaimie Cloud encouraged us to aim a little bit higher in our efforts, and thinking about, as she phrased it, what's the most upstream level of influence that we can have in addressing some of those problems that we identify,” reflected Andrea Caruso, a member of the Sustainability Leadership Team. 

For educators, there’s a huge “upstream” opportunity in educating students.

“Young people are the secret sauce,” Cloud said at the workshop. “It cannot be done without children and young people. Adults are just too slow.”

Student Independent Learning Project: Air Quality

Among the young people at Durham Academy who are wasting no time in their efforts to tackle the climate crisis is Miller Roessler ’24, a member of the student Sustainability Committee who also attended the summer workshop. Roessler spent much of his summer researching outdoor air quality at Durham Academy through an independent learning project funded by a 2022 Jack Linger Explorer Grant (another sustainability-related project made possible by the fund focused on solar energy in Nigeria, by CJ Nwafor ’23).

With Caruso as his faculty advisor, Roessler sought to determine the impact of vehicle idling — as often happens in the morning drop-off or afternoon pick-up lines — on air quality at the Preschool/Lower School campus. With the expertise of Durham Academy parent Heather Wells, a UNC-Chapel Hill researcher whose work involves air quality, in his toolkit, he purchased and installed four air sensors at the Lower School campus and in a control location to collect real-time air quality data during the weeks that Durham Academy Summer programming was ongoing. 

While Roessler’s data did not conclusively show that vehicle idling during DA Summer significantly affected air quality, he wonders how the unique circumstances of the summer may have affected the results — and he plans to continue to monitor the air quality during the school year, when there is a higher volume of traffic, on his own time. In just the first couple of weeks of school being in session, his data has already shown differences in air quality during peak traffic times.

“I think at this point, we have more questions than we have answers or definitive trends, but that's okay,” Caruso said. “That's the nature of science. But this data may also be information that we look to for use by Green Places.”

For Roessler, the independent learning project, as well as his involvement with the Sustainability Committee and participation in the Cloud Institute seminar have been enlightening.

“It's helped me realize that it's not only this one year that you have to [make a difference], it can be for future grades or classes,” he explained. “For example, [when the Sustainability Committee was trying to grow] milkweed last year, we had to germinate the seeds before we actually planted them in the spring. And it didn't really work out — just some of them grew — but we still kind of learned from it, like where we want to plant, how often we should water, how much soil we should use — all of that experience helps. So now in the fall, I don't think the milkweed seeds actually have to germinate [ahead of time] — we can just plant them where we want them to grow.”

And as the milkweed eventually grows and feeds Monarch butterflies, so does Durham Academy’s sustainability program — feeding students’ desires for creating a more sustainable world.

Follow DA’s sustainability progress via the Living Sustainably blog: