An Interview with HISD's Stephanie Walker, Houston Independent School District (HISD), piloting a Zero-Waste Initiative - Children's Environmental Literacy Foundation

An Interview with HISD’s Stephanie Walker, Houston Independent School District (HISD), piloting a Zero-Waste Initiative

We sat down with Stephanie Walker—Analyst II, Energy and Sustainability for Houston Independent School District (HISD), to talk about the HISD Zero-Waste School Program pilot and how it hopes to bring sustainability practices to the school district—one of the largest in the nation—and beyond. 

The Strategic Objectives of HISD’s Zero-Waste School Program are to:
• Reduce waste at source
• Increase reusable options for common waste sources
• Implement recycling program
• Implement composting program

To achieve these objectives, HISD’s aims to:
• Increase recycling rate in HISD schools
• Improve knowledge and awareness among HISD families with broader impact to community


Student learning is a key component to the success of these initiatives. CELF is thrilled to be a partner in helping to integrate recycling and circular economy principles practically into HISD curriculum.

Stephanie Walker

In this interview, Stephanie shares how her 15 years of experience in the district focusing on energy conservation have cultivated her passion for pursuing this new challenge, and how she hopes this initiative will help to empower students and educators to make informed decisions toward a zero-waste future.

Can you share a bit about your background and what motivated you to work in the field of sustainability, particularly in an educational context?

I was mostly on the energy conservation side. And with this being such a large district, my deep concern was with our plant operators (POs), with our staff, and students, because I want to be able to build that culture around sustainability, where they understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. I believe education plays a crucial role in shaping all individuals, not just students, but even myself, and the attitude and behavior towards sustainability. So passionate about empowering students and educators to make informed decisions and be more environmentally conscious of their decisions that they make. 



What inspired the initiation of the zero-waste program at Houston Independent School District?
What key goals do you aim to achieve through this initiative?

The initiation of the zero-waste program at HISD was inspired by the district’s commitment to environmental stewardship. We aim to achieve several key goals throughout this initiative, including reducing the amount of waste sent to the landfills, minimizing the district’s environmental footprint, educating students and staff about the importance of waste reduction. Our goal is to instill that culture of environmental awareness and responsibility while making a positive impact on the local and global environment. 

How do you plan to engage and collaborate with teachers in piloting the zero-waste program? 

So currently we have a pilot of 20 campuses, where I am collaborating with teachers and the campus. I plan to implement a multi-faceted approach including hosting workshops, training sessions, to provide the teachers with knowledge and resources. I can’t assume that they already know about this topic. Effectively integrate the sustainability principles into the curriculum, where everybody understands and additionally, I tend to establish a supportive network where teachers can share ideas, best practices, challenges, and just fostering that collaborative relationship with everyone.There’s no wrong answer. We’re all in it together. You know, it’s new for all of us.

What do you see to be some of the primary challenges in implementing this program, and how, and how do you plan to address resistance or concerns from teachers, students, and other stakeholders?

Anticipating challenges while implementing a zero-waste program, I plan to address resistance or concerns from teachers and stakeholders by prioritizing open communication and collaboration. I will seek to understand their concerns, engaging in dialouges to address misconception and provide information about the benefits of the program. Additionally, I will work to involve teachers and stakeholders in the decision-making process, ensuring that their input is valued. Furthermore, I intend to provide comprehensive training and professional development opportunities to equip teachers with the necessary tools to successfully integrate principles into their classroom. I believe offering tangible support would motivate the teachers to continue to be active as their campus champion and participate in the implementation of the zero-waste program. 

Your plans are to begin with this pilot and expand to the district, would you be into the idea of scaling nationwide?

Most definitely! As I look to expand our zero-waste program with the lessons learned from the pilot, my vision for scaling nationwide is by creating that culture of environmentalism through the educational aspect. I believe the expansion will entail implementing our comprehensive waste reduction initiative, recycling initiative, and the integration of environmental education into the curriculum. And I know we’re working on that now, fostering a district wide commitment to the sustainability practices that will benefit our students and the environment. 

My vision with the comprehensive waste reduction and recycling initiative is to implement into EVERY classroom, every administrative office common area, and I want to establish a robust infrastructure for waste management—including the provision of recycling bins, knowing what the different colors mean, composting, and having the educational resources to support our waste reduction practices.

The long term vision is to expand nationwide. I feel once we package it together, there are unique features that we have in our program, such as the innovative outreach or the educational component that  we’re implementing right now, that can inspire other school districts, communities, and businesses to adopt. There are similar strategies we have that they could tweak on their own. Sharing our data and success stories, what worked for us as a large district, the challenges, what didn’t work—I would like to demonstrate the positive impact of our recycling program and showcase the potential for replication and motivate others in other countries.  It’s important also to have that partnership and collaboration with local businesses in their surrounding area. So by sharing the details of the partnership, and our education, curriculum tools, I think it’ll be successful, and work for other districts in the surrounding area.

We have a number of corporate partners who are supporting this initiative. What do you see to be their role in not only helping this scale to make this work in HISD and beyond, but also in addressing some of the logistical challenges in ensuring that students, teachers, and facilities understand the proper ways to handle recycling to prevent waste in wrong bins?

For me it’s about more than just the money side, it’s meant for them [our partners] to come into our schools, seeing the layout, seeing the challenges, also educating our students from the point of view of how they are trying to save the environment, how Tricon energy is doing as a company because yeah, we’re in a school district, but our seniors will be graduating soon. So they can learn how what they’re doing now can impact the environment by connecting with one of our partners and seeing what they do as a company. Moreover, having them in the schools, talking to students, educating them—they’re not just hearing my voice, they’re not just hearing their teacher’s voice, they’re hearing it from a corporate person that’s already in that field that sees all of it.

There are job opportunities, learning opportunities from an engineering standpoint. So I think it’ll open their eyes to a new perspective. Because of course kids think “I just want to throw it away,” but I don’t think they realize the impact nor even how that landfield is built.

Do you plan to involve the broader community, including parents and local organizations, in supporting and enhancing the success of the zero-waste initiative?

Yes I do. Organize community events, workshops, or information session to raise awareness. Creating volunteer opportunities for parents and local organizations to participate and learn about the benefit of waste reduction. Establish clear communication channels to keep parents and community members informed about the progress by utilizing newsletters and social media. Recognize and Celebrate the contribution of parents and local organization. We may can develop and recongition/award program for outstanding support and participation. Everyone loves a little recognition..

In what ways do you see the zero-waste program integrating with the existing curriculum and educational goals of Houston Independent School District?

The Zero Waste program can be integrated with the curriculum and education goals of HISD. We’ll do that by incorporating waste reduction, recycling, and sustainability principles into various subjects—math, science, to provide a real world application that can complement and enhance the learning objectives across different grade levels and disciplines. For instance, in science class, students can explore the environmental impact of waste by studying the ecosystem, investigating the life cycles of material—like what happens once they break down—fostering a deeper understanding of the ecological system and the human impact. For math, students can analyze data on waste generation and recycling rates, developing that critical thinking  and quantitative reasoningwhile addressing real world environmental challenges. By aligning with the educational objectives, the zero-waste program can enrich students’ learning experiences, foster interdisciplinary connection, and cultivate a culture of enviromental stewardship within HISD.

What are your thoughts on how we can help students see the big picture and help address challenges and help push the initiative forward?

I think how we can get the students more engaged or more involved in understanding, is to have educational workshops for them. So my goal is, and what I have told the campuses is, if you don’t have an environmental group, or a recycling or sustainability group, whatever you want to call it, I advise them to create that group of students that can be an advocate for it. And that’s peer-to-peer, they’ll listen to each other, like, “hey, no, don’t throw that in there, it goes here.” And it sticks because they’re peers, so they understand more. Also, recognition. Maybe having different events where we recognize them, incentivize them. People always say, “what’s in it for me,” so just recognizing them for the things that they’re doing for their campus, like waste audits. We can also use students to do outreach in the community, and different things like that. So I do advise the campuses to have that environmental club that is eager to learn about sustainability, environmentalism, because it’s broad. And you know, in sustainability, you have water, you have trash, waste, different things. So I feel that’s how we can get them more engaged. I know when I would visit the campuses, some are and some of the students are just really not in tune. And I think by them having that visual of what is possible, just for an example, a plastic bottle was made into a dress or something like that, you know, just unique things that the repurpose of waste, you know, I think would be kind of good for them to see. So those are just my thoughts.

I’m excited. I welcome all the challenges, I”m excited about the curriculum, the composting side, I’m really excited for that, working with teachers—and so I say, 2024, I’m up for whatever!

Is there anything else you’d like to share or leave us with?

Two of my favorite parts on developing this program are,the interaction with students and staff. Having the oppertunity to make a tangible, postitive impact on o

My favorite part of this program is the interaction with students and staff, and the collaboration with stakeholders. Having the opportunity to make a tangible, positive impact on our environment and community is rewarding. It gives me a chance to collaborate and engage with various stakeholders, including employees and other local communities. It’s an exciting prospect to work together, share ideas, and build partnerships with local businesses such as Tricon Energy, Lyondellbasell and Exxon Mobil that will strengthen our commitment to the zero-waste program and sustainability efforts. 

I’m excited. I welcome all the challenges and am particularly excited about the curriculum, the composting side, I’m really excited for that and working with teachers. And so I say, 2024, I’m up for whatever!

 

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