Larry Frye P ’12, ’15, ’15
Head of School

Education for a

Sustainable World

Every school answers the following question:
“What does it mean to be an educated person?”

Many do so thoughtfully, some perhaps less so, and some base their answer on the dictates of a state or church or other accrediting body. But whether they intend to answer this question or not, by outlining a program and its requirements, they proclaim to the world what they think constitutes “an education.”

Seven years ago, Harley opened The Commons, a building dedicated to education for a sustainable future. Harley always had a commitment to a kind of sustainability; certainly, respect for one another and for the environment has always been part of our ethos. But the development of The Commons — an entire building devoted to education for a sustainable future — was a new and bold step.

Taking that step was inspired by a gift from former trustees and parents Arunas and Pam Chesonis P ’10, ’11, ’16. The Head of School at that time was Tim Cottrell (2006 to 2012), and Tim saw in the Chesonis gift an opportunity to put real meat on the bones of our commitment to sustainability. If you’re going to teach students to “live sustainably,” what does that mean? The School put together what we called “The Barn Programs Group” (we informally called The Commons “The Barn,” and many still do) and then started to tackle this set of questions.

Fast forward to today: The Commons Team consists of five full-time educators: Seth O’Bryan P ’32, ’34, Commons Director; Sybil Prince ’00, Mindfulness & Empathy Education; Lisa Barker, Food & Farm; Jocie Kopfman ’09, Civic Engagement & Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and Kima Enerson, Maker Educator. Sustainability-related teaching happens throughout the curriculum, Nursery through Grade 12, to be clear, but Harley is one of a very few schools with a teaching staff dedicated to these ends.

What can we make of those titles? Well, they convey what we mean by “an education for a sustainable future.” Living sustainably, then, is not only to mind one’s impact on the environment, although that is a necessary element. It is also to reckon with one’s role in civil society and in the democratic process; to engage authentically in taking care of others; to understand and make informed choices about where our food comes from; and to have a hands-on “tinkerer’s” mentality and skill set about solving complex problems. We think these are the habits of mind and skills that will help to secure a sustainable future.

In The Commons, for example, students in Grade 3 learn about vermicompost through the Food and Farm program. They take food scraps from their classroom, empty them into a worm composting bin maintained in the greenhouse, and then observe and record what happens over time. Ultimately, the compost formed will be used in the Harley Microfarm. Simultaneously, students are learning key steps to the process shared with them by Lisa Barker.They also received a tour of the entire Commons from Kima Enerson, to learn about different forms of renewable energy used in the building. Afterward, students built wind turbines and investigated the best place on campus to install them, based on variables that impact wind energy.

Not only do all schools answer the question about what it means to be educated, they should also respond to their historical moment. American curricula have changed as a function of industrialization, war, 9/11, Sputnik, the Civil Rights Movement, and more. As for today’s historical moment, the ongoing viability of our ways of life — not to mention the livability of the planet itself—will be at the heart of any future narratives, should we still be around to write them. These are the central questions of our time — shouldn’t one’s schooling reflect this and attempt to meet the moment?

At Harley, it does.