Greening by example: Dunbarton High School shows what it means to go above and beyond in the name of sustainability

School details - Greenest School in Canada: 2014

Name: Dunbarton High School
Location: Pickering, Ontario
Grade levels: 9-12
Number of students: 1500

Congratulations Dunbarton! Winner of the 2015 Greenest School on Earth from Global Coalition for Green Schools. Read more here »

On first glance, a visitor might not know that the 1960’s-era Dunbarton High School is one of the greenest schools in the country. It was initially constructed with no regard for resource conservation of aesthetic well-being and certainly looks the part. But over the last five years, this school and its students, staff and surrounding community have undergone a green transformation that not only changed the building, but everyone in it.

A green building

The work started with the building, including the installation of new, more energy efficient windows that can be opened for fresh air, new exterior brickwork with underlying foam insulation for greater energy efficiency, and fluorescent lighting which operates at a lower wattage and glare.

Each classroom is equipped with bins that recycle both paper and cans/bottles, signage that directs staff and students how to keep selected light banks off and reduce lighting consumption, and a designated box for scrap paper that can be used in lieu of new paper. A rooftop solar hot water heating system preheats cafeteria water, water for one of our gymnasiums, and washrooms in the east side of the building.

A program was put in place that gives Grade nine students who are new to the school a stainless steel water bottle, refillable at five filling fountains, which provides clean, BPA-free tap water and enables hydration throughout their time at Dunbarton.

Staff hope that a financial award they recently received will also help them to install an indoor living wall in the library – offering students and staff greater indoor air quality and a more comfortable indoor learning environment.

Seven-year biodiversity program encourages outdoor learning and appreciation of nature

Apart from all of these sustainable building features, what is perhaps most impressive about Dunbarton is the effort that staff and students have made to learn what it really means to be green, and then put these ideas into practice.

This includes the school’s seven-year campus biodiversity program, which has led to the planting of 70 shade trees (22 different native species) in locations targeted to best provide shade for the south and west sides of the school, and for outdoor spaces that are used for physical education (which includes eight trees beside the track and sports field). Natural shading reduces sun exposure risk, encourages outdoor teaching, benefits physical and mental health and improves student attentiveness. The trees themselves also act as a way of improving the air quality surrounding the school, which can sometimes be poor due to two nearby highways.

Another aspect of the biodiversity program is a 40-seat outdoor classroom that can be booked by teachers, and is used regularly. These outdoor spaces increase student focus and concentration, especially benefiting the need for a kinesthetic component in their learning, which they would not receive sitting in a classroom. Dunbarton also has a 500-square metre pollinator garden that contributes to the overall campus biodiversity by surrounding students and staff with nature.

A curriculum that encourages green knowledge and careers

Special efforts have also been made at Dunbarton to teach sustainability as a part of the curriculum, and students are encouraged to be ‘Specialist High Skills Majors (Environment)’, where they get sector certifications, and do co-operative education placements at places like Parks Canada and the Toronto Zoo.

In a truly unique school program, Dunbarton’s Grade 9 Science and Geography classes participate in the Atlantic Salmon Restoration Program, raising 100 fish from eggs, participating in habitat restoration and fish release, and researching the history and importance of Lake Ontario Atlantic Salmon.

There is a big emphasis on green field trips for all grades and levels, and all of the school’s outdoor features double as learning opportunities, giving students a first-hand green playground in which to wander and discover:

  • Geography classes research Rouge National Urban Park, and complete a park design assignment.
  • Science classes monitor the school and campus air quality (ozone), local stream water quality (benthics), and audit the school’s electricity use, developing a conservation plan.
  • Grade 10 Science classes spend three weeks studying climate change, including a visit from Our Horizon (, providing them with a climate change civic action project.
  • The trees and pollination garden on campus are used by photography, drama and visual arts classes for their curriculum.
  • Grade 9 enriched science classes researched all 22 different native tree species on campus, producing 44 large posters profiling each tree which are installed in offices, classrooms and hallways to educate staff and students on biodiversity.

Dunbarton students are also strongly encouraged to volunteer, and their level of commitment is high. One volunteer activity involves helping to host the annual Environmental Stewardship Pickering conference, managing registration and presenting speakers. Another activity every second year is when the school fundraises by selling rain barrels, giving the community simple water-saving gardening aids; to date they’ve sold over 200.

Connecting with the wider community brings engagement and inspiration

Community engagement goes further than just fundraising at Dunbarton. When school administrators realized that the district school board’s contract did not provide for organic waste collection, they coordinated an extensive volunteer partnership with the local neighbours to divert 35kg of waste on a weekly basis. Up to 15 students collect organic waste from staff offices and it is then taken to nearby homes to be picked up by city green bin collection. Next year they also plan to expand to one day a week collection of student-produced organic waste in the cafeteria.

Dunbarton is also in the planning stages of a partnership with the City of Pickering to rehabilitate a local park. The rehabilitation will include naturalizing a grassy area beside the wetland, removing and replacing 25 Ash trees killed by the Emerald ash borer, installing seating to encourage community members to stay and view the wetland (of which one bench will be made from recycled Ash wood), and the installation of educational signage about the native species, pollinators and biodiversity.

Dunbarton: a school that respects what it means to be green

Dunbarton High School shows that being ‘green’ is the sum of many parts. By encouraging student, staff and the community to get involved, they have managed to harness the power of learning and teach youth to have respect for the environment and to realize the impact it has on their future.