Research Summary

The role of school partnerships in promoting education for sustainability and social capital

Schools can act as a central hub for building pro-environmental social capital

The Journal of Environmental Education

Fostering pro-environmental behaviors within individuals and the community is increasingly important as the world faces the growing effects of climate change, resource depletion, and waste mismanagement. However, this effort is inherently challenging due to the complexity of various factors, some of which are still not fully understood by researchers. One of these factors is the role of partnerships between schools and other entities, the participants in these partnerships, and the role partnerships play in creating change in a community. Most of the research in this field of study focuses on the concept of either environmental citizenship (citizens acting in environmentally-friendly ways) or social capital (the network and norms within a community), not the connection between them. This study combines the two concepts by centering a public school in a complex network of sectors, including the state, community, civil society, and business. The researchers investigated the way partnerships affect environmental citizenship and social capital and the role of partnerships in creating a sustainable local community through education for sustainability.

The goal of education for sustainability (EfS) is to create a more sustainable future by encouraging environmentally-conscious actions today. EfS is primarily seen in formal educational settings like schools and is commonly referred to as education for sustainable development. In general, schools can be agents of change for current and future generations, and in this case, pro-environmental behavior is the desired change. EfS initiatives encourage students to be informed citizens that actively engage in critical thinking across sectors. Schools are in a unique position because of their interactions with the other four sectors in a democratic society. According to this study, these sectors are the state, which is considered government agencies, municipalities, and public organizations; the community, such as the people or groups of people considered as active citizens; civil society, which are the local and national non-profits; and, business, such as private, for-profit companies. This study looked at the school as a central hub for infusing sustainable practices as a pillar of the local community and how the school can make connections between the other sectors.

This case study is based on River School, a public elementary school in Israel. A total of 450 students were in attendance at the school during the study, which took place between 2012 and 2018. The demographic makeup consisted of 80% Yemenite families and 13% Jewish immigrants, and the students’ families were categorized as mid-lower socioeconomic status to mid-upper socioeconomic status. The data collected during the study included: several dozen documents pertaining to the development of the schools’ partnerships; three separate interviews with the school principal; and, ten observations of sustainability-related activities in and out of school. The researchers then produced a detailed description of the main ideas that came from the data.

Researchers concluded that EfS is iterative and schools can play a central role in fostering environmental citizenship and developing social capital to effect change through partnerships. The data collected from River School revealed a specific example, the Boulder Stream project, which aimed to protect the integrity of the Boulder Stream site by preventing development. The first stage included the students meeting with the local government leadership (school-state partnership). Next, the school facilitated conversations between environmental organizations and the school community. These conversations evolved to include community members in other sectors (school-civil society). After these efforts and as environmental citizenship increased in the community over the course of the eight-year campaign to save the stream, the building plans at Boulder Stream were abandoned. The data also showed there was improved social capital that embraced sustainability because the entire school staff oversaw obtaining and maintaining partnerships with all four sectors. The strongest relationship occurred between the state and the school. The connection with business was identified as a point of improvement for River School.

This study has limitations. First, the researchers focused on just one school in Israel, which makes generalizability of the study difficult. Second, the River School was established with sustainability as a pillar of its mission which may have made the outcome biased. Similarly, the school established a reciprocal relationship with players from each sector from the onset. Third, the partnerships created by this school are unique due to location and circumstance and thus, may not be available or possible in other areas.

Researchers recommend that educational centers should build intentional, lasting relationships with the four different sectors (state, community, civil society, business) to positively influence sustainable behaviors in the local community. They recommend a four-pronged approach: 1) make building partnerships a part of the school’s guiding philosophy; 2) find specific and shared goals for the school and sector partner to achieve together; 3) facilitate open conversations to address the concerns and needs of all sector partners; and 4) invite sector partners to actively participate in environmental citizenship.

The Bottom Line

Schools can influence pro-environmental behaviors in individuals and establish social capital or pro-environmental behaviors at the community level, which ultimately contribute to education for sustainability (EfS) through partnerships with the state, community, civil society, and business sectors. This study explored how partnerships with a school in Israel were formed, and how they effected environmental citizenship and social capital. The researchers recommend a four-pronged approach for schools pursuing EfS: 1) make building partnerships a part of the school’s guiding philosophy; 2) find specific and shared goals for the school and sector partner to achieve together; 3) facilitate open conversations to address the concerns and needs of all sector partners; and 4) invite sector partners to actively participate in pro-environmental behaviors.