How Chicago Public Schools is Using HGSC to Build Sustainability District-Wide

Robert Christlieb, LEED AP
ED- Facilities, Operations & Maintenance
Chicago Public Schools
42 West Madison Street Chicago, Illinois

Tell us about your school district. 

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is the 4th largest school district in the nation, with 323,251 students enrolled at the start of the 2023-2024 school year. We have 634 schools on 530 campuses, including district-run, charter, contract, and SAFE schools. CPS has over 62 million square feet of occupied space. 

Why is improving sustainability and air quality in Chicago Public Schools facilities important to you?

Sustainability and air quality have always been a priority for the district, especially within the last few years. CPS has been at the forefront of water quality testing and indoor air quality (IAQ) assessments, as we have embarked on one of the most advanced and aggressive testing and monitoring programs not only in the state of Illinois but also nationwide. IAQ assessments have been conducted annually in all schools and administrative buildings since 2020. Additionally, the district has provided Temtop portable air monitoring devices to all building engineers to conduct assessments in response to IAQ concerns. In regards to drinking water testing, the district has collected and analyzed over 110,000 drinking water samples since the program was implemented in 2016.

With technology allowing for greater and greater capabilities of testing and tracking at a lower cost each year, we are continuing to push the boundaries of what is possible as it relates to monitoring the water and air quality within our schools. We currently have numerous IAQ monitoring pilot programs using a range of monitors to collect and review all types of IAQ data. Additionally, the district is conducting a drinking water fountain automatic flushing pilot program. We believe that investing in sustainable solutions to water quality, indoor air quality, and energy sources means a cleaner, better future for our students, staff, and community.

What motivated you to join the Healthy Green Schools & Colleges program?

We believe that the HGSC program provides a great foundational operational standard from which we can build on our current efforts to create an overall strategy for a large portfolio of green schools based upon our current policies and procedures. We believe the start to greening a school is focusing on the operational practices and standards used and then building upon the foundational standards to incorporate greater means of sustainability and energy efficiency through technology and other resources. HSGC provides CPS with the building blocks to implement this foundation and give us an opportunity to showcase all the work we have done to keep our facilities safe, clean, and healthy. HGSC also helps us identify areas of focus for improvements and allows us to align with our labor partners on the shared goal of operating sustainable schools.

How are you and your team using Healthy Green Schools & Colleges to identify areas of opportunity in your facilities?

We are really at the beginning of implementing HGSC as we embark on this new effort to create greater transparency around building operating standards. We have created a team of experts from various departments and are evaluating our position against the standard as a group, working together to identify areas where we already meet the standard and areas where we can improve. 

Are colleagues or administrators outside of your department aware of or interested in your school’s participation in the program?

Yes, we are announcing our participation in the CEO’s newsletter and have begun coordinating with various departments on the changes we will need to make in order to meet the HGSC standard. We will continue to highlight the program and create more transparency to the rest of the district and outside groups as we continue to move forward through the implementation phase. 

What accomplishment are you most proud of from a health or sustainability standpoint?

At CPS, we strive to create a high level of priority around creating safe environments in our schools with the resources we have. Over the years, we have really put a lot of focus on building our water and indoor air quality programs with testing and monitoring that is above and beyond what almost all other school districts are doing.

As part of our commitment to ensuring the health and safety of our students and staff, CPS samples and analyzes the drinking water in our schools and facilities. The water testing schedule was developed based on criteria that includes the age of the school, age of the students (with priority given to schools with pre-K programs), presence of a kitchen where meals are prepared, and presence of pipes that could need repairs or replacement. In 2016, CPS began the first round of our districtwide water testing program out of an abundance of caution to ensure drinking water in our facilities met all federal, state, and local regulations. In addition to meeting state requirements, CPS also took the additional step to test water quality on an ongoing basis and began a second round of comprehensive testing starting in Spring 2019. The ongoing drinking water testing program, with sampling at 25% of schools per year, will continue through Fall 2026. The district follows the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidance to ensure safe drinking water. A sample results letter is provided to the school principal for every sampling event to share with the school and community and all sample results available for that location are posted on the CPS water quality testing website. We have also implemented one of the most stringent IAQ assessment programs that includes the following:

  • Conducting annual IAQ assessments of all school buildings. The reports documenting the assessment results are posted on the CPS website.
  • Provided Temtop portable air monitoring devices to all building engineers to conduct assessments in response to IAQ concerns.

What’s next for CPS?

The district plans to work through the initial implementation of the Healthy Green Schools & Colleges standard and work toward HGSC certification over the next few years. We also plan to build upon the HGSC standard by incorporating additional elements into CPS’s procedures, such as energy efficiency, recycling, custodial, water, and waste. The district is also focusing on:

  • Integrating technology to provide real-time ambient air monitoring in our school buildings to identify air quality concerns as they occur.
  • Automatic flushing for our drinking water fountains so that we can continue to provide safe drinking water for all students and staff.
  • Conducting annual hazard assessments in all buildings to identify locations where hazardous materials (i.e. lab chemicals, expired cleaning products) and universal waste (fluorescent light bulbs) are stored.