Meet A Member: Joan Leavens

A Green Business Network Member Spotlight


Meet Joan Leavens, Coordinator of Sustainability and Community Engagement for the Shawnee Mission School District and member of the Green Business Network! We recently chatted with Joan to learn more about her role in leading the district’s sustainability efforts, her current projects and her interest in the GBN.


When Joan Leavens became the Coordinator of Sustainability and Community Engagement for the Shawnee Mission School District in 2015, she knew this was her dream job.

“This job is the culmination of all my years of experience. I started as a kindergarten teacher in a St. Louis school that taught the same way we’re teaching today: through experiences. I remember as a kindergarten teacher, my kids wanted to learn about sea lions, so I took them to the zoo, and we had our journal and our crayons, and we recorded what we saw. It’s the same thing we’re doing today, except with a lot more applied theory and a lot more research,” Joan says.

Today, Joan’s job is to make connections and provide resources to help teachers, administrators, and the more than 27,000 students in the district realize their sustainability goals through experiential learning.

“I’m so fortunate to be in this position. This district, the philosophy, the board and the staff – there’s so much support at every level that it makes my job so much fun. I can’t take the credit for the work that gets done – I’m here to make the connections. It’s the teachers and students who are realizing goals.”


Connecting sustainability and learning

Joan’s first and perhaps the district’s largest sustainability undertaking thus far has been the implementation of a districtwide cafeteria composting and recycling program. As of May of this year, all 46 schools in the district, including the Center for Academic Achievement, are composting and recycling in their cafeterias. As a whole, they divert on average 70% of waste from the landfill each day. Missouri Organic Recycling picks up the cafeteria compost from each school three times a week.

Joan is most proud of this accomplishment, because it was a true community effort.

“The groundwork was laid. There was already a grassroots effort underway in many of the schools, and I just had to grab the kite strings. Johnson County Department of Health and Environment’s staffing and funding made the whole project possible. We had support at every level, and that’s what made it work. It would not have been possible were it not a community desire.”

As with any sustainability undertaking within the district, learning was at the core of the cafeteria project. Fourth graders designed the composting system that the district currently has in place.

“They figured out the color-coded bins, and the signs that we have, and the order in which we were going to collect items. And all of it was a part of their project-based learning.”

Part of Joan’s job is also to find partnerships out in the community that help to accomplish mutually beneficial goals. For example, 87% of the schools have either a vegetable garden, native habitat or natural areas. The district partners with Kansas City Community Gardens whenever it installs vegetable gardens at its schools, and KCCG uses compost from Missouri Organic.

“It truly makes the program full circle. We tell the kids, ‘We’re collecting food so that we can grow more food.’”

The most rewarding part of Joan’s job is seeing the students explore and learn about sustainability issues through firsthand experiences. When a fifth grade teacher approached Joan with the desire to increase the district’s renewable energy portfolio, Joan turned it back to the teacher to turn into a project-based learning experience for the students and teacher.

She connected them with professionals in the renewable energy sector who visited and talked to the students and teacher. Students conducted an energy audit of their school and used a Kill-A-Watt electricity usage meter to determine the various plug loads on different electrical outlets in the school. They completed a lighting inventory that included recommendations on adjusting lighting levels throughout the school as well as designating a light monitor – someone in charge of turning off the light when leaving a room.

The students presented their findings and recommendations to Joan and other district administrators.

“These were fifth grade students, and they were so professional. We were riveted; they had our attention. It was just so awesome to see. This is our future workforce. It’s thrilling.”

Joan’s current focus is on maintaining the composting program, refining the district’s landscape management practices (to native gardens), and continuing to work with the curriculum to align all of the district’s sustainability initiatives with learning in the classroom.

“For landscaping, we’re used to doing things in the traditional way. These new stormwater facilities are coming online, and it’s a new technology – it’s not currently a part of everyone’s tool book. We have an opportunity to model and demonstrate this new technology and engage students in learning about it.”


Connecting to the Green Business Network

Joan first joined the Green Business Network in 2007 while working at YouthFriends. For the first two years, she served on the network’s program committee, a volunteer subcommittee of members involved in the planning of events. Since, Joan has remained an active member when her job allows and attends events when possible. Most recently, Joan is serving as a panelist for GBN’s newest three-event series on green team engagement.

The opportunity to create relationships and get a behind-the-scenes look at what other businesses are doing has sustained her involvement in the network.

“It’s always great to see the ‘back-office’ tour to get the inside look at what sustainable businesses are working on and see how it’s done. Also to meet potential collaborators and partners.”