A Pennsylvania high school just made history.
George School in Newtown announced April 27 that it would divest its $150 million endowment of holdings in coal mining companies, likely becoming the first secondary school in the nation to join the global movement to rid investment portfolios of fossil fuel stocks. The decision was prompted by a student petition.
"I was thrilled that the kids were active and concerned and brought this to the board—and that the board was respectful," said head of school Nancy Starmer.
George School, founded in 1893 by members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), is a private boarding and day school with about 550 students. Serving ninth through 12th grades, the campus sits on a 240-acre plot in Bucks County, about 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
Last spring, more than a dozen students submitted a proposal calling for the school to divest from all fossil fuels. In it, they wrote that "our school should not be invested in corporations involved with the extraction, production, or distribution of fossil fuels" because of climate change threats, and because of the school's mission to develop "faithful stewardship of the earth."
The school formed a committee of faculty and school board members, including Starmer, at the start of the school year to investigate the issue. The group researched divestment and held several meetings with the students.
On April 25, the committee presented its findings to a divided board. Some members were concerned that divesting from all fossil fuels would "negatively impact the earnings on the endowment," according to Starmer. Others were fully committed to using "our endowment for socially responsible purposes because we're an educational institution," she said.
The resulting consensus was to divest the school's endowment holdings (i.e., stocks and bonds) tied to coal companies within a year. Coal holdings make up less than 5 percent of its endowment.
"I think we ended up in the middle," said Starmer. "We came up with a solution that some see as too little and some see as too much, but we did so by listening carefully to different points of view. And I think it's a first step in a much longer and a much broader conversation that we'll hopefully be keeping up with over the next several years."
The board also agreed to invest in renewable energy companies, as well as to ramp up the school's energy efficiency and sustainability efforts.
Although the decision might pack more symbolic rather than financial punch, it is likely to inspire other high schools to follow suit. So far at least 30 colleges have divested or committed to divest since the movement kicked off in 2011, along with dozens of cities, religious institutions, foudations and individuals with investment portfolios worth an estimated $50 billion.
At least five other high schools on the East Coast have launched divestment campaigns in recent years: Bronx High School of Science in New York; Gilman School in Maryland; Phillips Academy in Massachusetts; Phillips Exeter Academy and St. Paul's School in New Hampshire.
The alumni-led effort at St. Paul's School kicked off last year. After meeting with school administrators, the school's board decided against divestment. The group is now looking to reignite the conversation, according to Wick Beavers, a 1970 alum spearheading the campaign. Beavers added that Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat and a supporter of climate change action, is one of the 200 alumni who signed a petition in support of divestment.
The status of the other four high school campaigns is unclear.
Students are also looking beyond their individual schools. For example, in Massachusetts, 18 students—action fellows for the nonprofit Alliance for Climate Education (ACE)—launched a campaign this year to divest the state's teacher pension fund from fossil fuels.
This is the first year ACE fellows tackled divestment. Leah Qusba, an ACE spokeswoman, said the group plans to launch similar divestment fellowship opportunities in New York and San Francisco in the fall.
Kerry Brock, a senior at Newton North High School, is one of the Massachusetts fellows. She told InsideClimate News that she supports divestment because the alternative is "just wrong" and unethical.
For Brock and some of the other fellows, divestment even played a role in the schools they considered when applying for college. In particular, the way a school treated its student activists was important for her. Brock will be attending the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which has an active divestment chapter.
"When I think about college, I think about more than just a place to take classes, [it's] a place to really learn how to stand up and fight in the world for whatever it is you are trying to fight for," she said. "And when colleges don't encourage that, that's really discouraging."
The academic divestment movement accelerated this spring when 10 college groups held sit-ins on campus. The reaction by administrators was mixed. At Pennsylvania's Swarthmore College, students were able to occupy the hallway of an administration building for 32 days with no punishment. Meanwhile, a one-day sit-in on the Yale campus in Connecticut resulted in 19 students being cited for trespassing. So far none of the schools involved in the recent protests have agreed to divestment.
Could the influence of potential applicants in favor of divestment tip the scales?
Karthik Ganapathy, communications manager for the climate activist group 350.org, said he hopes so.
By weaving divestment into their college decisions, high school students could make a big impact on the college divestment efforts, he said.
"If more and more students say 'I'm not going to go to a school that invests in dirty energy of the past,' then that becomes the thing that colleges sort of have to address," said Ganapathy. "And that's one of the most exciting areas of campaign work that we've seen."