April Head of School Letter: Walking the Walk

Thursday, April 6, 2017


Glen Urquhart rightly has a reputation as an environmentally aware school. The appreciation and study of nature was part of the founding vision of GUS, as well as the understanding that the power of the outdoors is as valuable as any traditional classroom. Children are outside every day at GUS, rain or shine. They constantly explore the nature trail and even farther afield.

But beyond that, do we walk the walk?  A parent recently challenged me on that question, and it made me inventory all the things GUS does to promote the vital importance of nature and environmental stewardship in our lives. Here are some examples.

Children quickly come to know the flora and fauna on our twenty-three acre campus. We teach about pollinators and native plants, this year launching a new partnership with the North Shore Garden Club to seed native milkweed for Monarch butterflies. We study birds, tracking campus species (19 this year and counting). Lucky students might see one of the beavers that actively tend a lodge in the wetlands off the nature trail. We tap sugar maples to boil sap down for syrup, and older students keep two beehives and produce gallons of GUS honey annually. We study the sea in great breadth and depth, our connection to the Atlantic Ocean a defining aspect of historical if not contemporary life on the North Shore. We study the land and people of Cape Ann extensively, too. And we take many, many field trips to important natural areas across the region.

We have a 53.5 kW solar array on Braemar. In full sun, the array produces enough electricity to power about two average US homes daily. Over the time of service to date, the array has produced 166 Mwh. That would power 5,533 homes for a day. (There’s a flat-screen readout of the solar array in the upper school, if you’re interested in learning more.)

An effort this winter to upgrade lighting throughout campus with new LED panels and bulbs will save energy and, eventually, dollars. As important, GUS’s carbon footprint will be reduced by 110,000 of CO2 a year.

In the greenhouse, we have an ongoing partnership with The Food Project. They just returned to begin their sprouts for their farm in Wenham. Students will help plant those “starts” later this spring. One of my hopes is to eventually identify funding for a half-time school farmer to really ramp up our own year-round greenhouse efforts and get our raised beds on campus into full production. That farmer would also be a teacher, working in classrooms to study food systems, food security, and access to healthy food for all. (If you’re interested in talking about that dream with me, just email!)

I’m also pleased to share that through my request and the leadership of the trustees on our Buildings and Grounds Committee and B&G Director Tom Kotwicki, we are committed to immediately becoming a pesticide and herbicide-free campus. We’ve invited several companies that specialize in organic turf and grass management to help us with that process, which started quietly at the beginning of this school year. As a campus for young children who roll in the grass, this is a particularly important effort. (Not to mention for the bees!) As we gear up for lawn season at home, I urge you to consider going pesticide and herbicide free as well. There is abundant scientific evidence that this is a wise choice.

On Earth Day, Saturday, April 22, I invite you to join me as we revive an honored GUS tradition: Spring Cleanup. Roll up your sleeves and help us tend the campus and clean the area adjacent to the greenhouse. Current and alumni families and friends are welcome!

When I interviewed at GUS, I was asked what challenges students might face in the future. We’ll teach your kids to read, write, and be numerically adept. Those are givens. But we all also have to face the realities of global warming and climate change, especially at a school a mile from the water. I don’t have any quick fixes, but I do strongly urge that we think and talk (and, ideally, act) on it as a school, as educators, and as parents.

President Barack Obama, in his farewell address, said, “[W]ithout bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change. They’ll be busy dealing with its effects: more environmental disasters, more economic disruptions, waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary.”  He went on to say, “[T]o simply deny the problem not only betrays future generations, it betrays the essential spirit of this country….”  I agree, and I’m glad to lead a school community that walks the walk as it “poses questions as often as it devises solutions.”

Trust and go forward,

David Liebmann

Head of School 

Whitney Buckley