Andra Yeghoian: The Journey of a Green Leader

“We must build administrators’ capacity and understanding of environmental literacy in order to put teachers in positions to make the necessary changes to the education system.” 

Andra Yeghoian 

This week we spoke with Andra Yeghoian, the Environmental Literacy and Sustainability Coordinator at San Mateo County Office of Education (SMCOE), about creating impact and driving change from the classroom to the site, county, and state levels through environmental literacy. Our goal in speaking with Andra was to better understand her journey in advancing environmental literacy in California so that others may identify their own pathways to becoming Green Leaders.  

Andra got her start in environmental literacy and sustainability when she decided to pursue a teaching credential upon graduation. She was introduced to environmental sustainability through a close friend who presented the book Ishamael, which helps “explore the mental models that are driving our unsustainable behaviors.” This exposure developed into a passion for sustainability. She began imparting her knowledge and passion to her students while teaching in the Netherlands. While students engaged enthusiastically with environmental sustainability, Yeghoian faced resistance from both parents and administration at the school. This inspired her to pursue an MBA to enhance her business acumen to “sell” her vision more effectively to adult stakeholders. She got the opportunity to do just that as Director of Sustainability at Bishop O’Dowd High School, a private Catholic school in Oakland, CA. After working at the classroom and site levels she then took her experience to the county level, where she is now, at SMCOE overseeing a broad environmental literacy and sustainability initiative that impacts 23 school districts, over 110,000 students, and heading state-wide initiatives. 

Andra believes that environmental literacy is an important component of K-12 education because of its ties to our cultural experience, “The education system is fundamental to our cultural narrative, so if we want to make a paradigm shift happen, to move from the status quo to sustainable lifestyles, we have to make sure the education system is on board.” She would love for schools to be models for sustainability that students can grow and learn with and for them to implement these practices in their daily lives outside of school. Kids who grow up learning about sustainability and experiencing sustainable behaviors and practices at school are more inclined to continue the work and question the practices around them when they move into college and career. 

For environmental education to improve across both county and state levels, we need more green leaders to champion the cause. A green leader can be described as someone who demonstrates awareness and knowledge of the interconnectedness between natural and human systems, as well as the environmental and social issues that exist within these systems. They identify solutions to environmental challenges and use their skills and tools to resolve issues within their communities. Green leaders look at the big picture, enhancing the awareness and knowledge of others. 

When we objectively examine the current state of environmental literacy and sustainability in the formal K-12 sector, we must acknowledge that there are areas for improvement. Higher education has tripled down on sustainability. The corporate world is prioritizing sustainability and demanding an environmentally literate workforce with skills to address 21st-century challenges. Educators in K-12 need to look at how what they are teaching prepares students for higher ed and a career after high school. Many already overwhelmed teachers feel like environmental education is just one more thing to worry about. However, instead of being one more thing, Andra advocates for sustainability to become a platform that everything else connects to. This interdisciplinary approach is, “a hard mental model shift for educators.” 

Having a scalable foundation is imperative for aspiring green leaders, as can be seen in Andra’s shift from a private school serving roughly 1200 students, to the county level, serving more than 110,000 students. A green leader in her own right, Andra uses some of the same models she used at Bishop O’Dowd such as the Whole School Sustainability Integration Framework to scale across San Mateo County. Andra emphasizes her “4Cs” integration model, where “the idea of work happens across campus, curriculum, community, and culture.” Many of the initiatives she implemented at one school, she has now scaled to work in over 150 schools.  

One of the ways that schools are changing in a way that complements life beyond K-12, is through the creation of Green Campuses. A green campus is one that has a balanced ecological footprint, is climate-resilient, and inclusive. A campus that is carbon neutral and creates natural habitats to restore the footprint: catching and reusing rainwater, improving indoor air quality through natural ventilation. One that is climate-resilient: making sure schools can accommodate storms, wildfires, etc. An inclusive space: making sure everyone is comfortable and seen, and has gender-inclusive facilities. All of these aspects are “lumped into the green campus idea.” Green leaders can begin to implement these ideas by taking a look at the framework Andra has created and working with educational leaders to make sure the efforts are supported for long-term success.  

“The field of environmental education is not challenged with a dearth of ideas; it’s challenged by a capacity to deliver.”  

Judy Braus, Executive Director of NAAEE 

Making sure stakeholders have the capacity to deliver at scale is one of the first things Andra learned throughout her endeavors. Because of this she continues to develop and launch capacity building programs aimed at teachers and students: 

  • – The Sustainable and Climate Resilient Teacher Fellowship is focused on integrating environmental sustainability into its curriculum through project-based learning. This is the 6th  year of the program and the cohort recently shared its success in its case studies and capstone presentations.  

  • – The Youth Climate Ambassadors Leadership Program brings 9-11th grade students from across San Mateo County together, to empower youth to take climate action into their own hands. Through the program, students develop projects designed to drive change within San Mateo County and gain a diverse set of skills related to sustainability and climate action. 

In order to better support these student and teacher leaders to drive transformative change, administrators also need capacity-building and tools for environmental literacy and sustainability. Andra notes that “We always talk about professional development for teachers and educators, but administrators are the ones pulling the strings, and they need the capacity and understanding in order to put educators in the position to make the necessary changes in our schools!” This is why Andra has also launched an Administrator Fellowship Program focused around the intersection of green facilities and curriculum and instruction.  

Having first-hand experience working at the county-level, Andra sees how County Offices of Education can be field catalysts for change within their communities. They offer the support and capacity-building tools needed for change in both the school and district levels. By bringing the Whole School Sustainability Integration Framework to San Mateo County, Andra has helped catalyze institutional change that impacts the entire school; making schools and campuses “a laboratory of learning for a sustainable paradigm shift.” 

As a green leader, Andra has taken what she has learned in the past decade’s success and failure to build out a model in San Mateo County that is sustainable and scalable for all counties. “I feel so lucky to have been able to stand on the shoulders of all those who have come before me. I am so lucky to have learned from so many people,” expressed Andra. She credits her success and ability to challenge environmental education to the support and previous foundations of other green leaders who came before her, and to the risk-taking of the Principals and Superintendents she has worked under that had the bold visionary leadership to bring on a director/coordinator focused around sustainability. Mentoring and working with others in the field of environmental education is imperative for change. Green leaders should continue to take action within their communities and look to others who have championed the way for a more sustainable and comprehensive structure for environmental education.  

Relevant Links 

Bishop O’Dowd Commitment to Sustainability  

Awarded the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School and a Bay Area Green Certified Business in 2016 under Andra’s leadership. Learn more about Bishop O’Dowd’s sustainable work on campus in energy, water, transportation, waste, food and dining, air quality, and construction and renovations. 

ELSI Environmental Justice Resources  

Developed by SMCOE Environmental Literacy Initiative, this repository contains environmental justice resources for teachers and students to customize and adapt to their classrooms. 

Institute for Humane Education

The Institute for Humane Education helps educators teach about human rights, environmental preservation, and animal protection to create a world where all can thrive.

National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative  

Hosted on the Green Schoolyards website, you’ll find the National COVID-19 Learning Initiative’s ever-growing body of work. SMCOE is one of the leaders driving this project. 

One Planet Living Framework  

Based on learning from the BedZED eco-village, Bioregional created the One Planet Living sustainability framework – comprising ten simple principles and detailed goals and guidance – and developed it together with WWF. 

SMCOE Environmental Literacy and Sustainability Initiative  

Explore Andra’s site for the San Mateo County Office of Education. You’ll find a seemingly endless amount of useful resources and information on the work SMCOE is doing. These paid fellowships build teacher and administrative capacity for driving sustainable and climate-resilient transformative change in their classroom and school communities.

Sustainable and Climate Resilient Schools Educator Fellowships 

These paid fellowships build teacher and administrative capacity for driving sustainable and climate resilient transformative change in their classroom and school communities.

Ten Strands 

Ten Strands is the leading field catalyst in the state of California and key partner of SMCOE Environmental Literacy and Sustainability Initiative.  

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