Why I Can’t Wait to Get Back to the Green Strides Tour

In June 2013, when we launched the first “Education Built to Last” Green Strides Tour, little did I know that I would be embarking on the best component of U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) recognition award program to date. The 2013 tour took me to 11 states to engage in 40 events;  spanning Alabama, New England, New York, New Jersey, California, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, and Washington, DC.  Like the award, it was a fantastic opportunity to build relationships and make connections at federal, state, local and school levels for facilities, health, and environment.

In 2014, under the theme “Healthy Schools, High-Achieving Students,” and with an additional 46 events in 6 states, I enhanced my knowledge about green schools practices. From Boulder and Fort Collins, CO to Palm Beach and Broward, FL, from West Virginia to Kentucky, from Prior Lake Savage and Waconia, MN to Maryland, – practices that save money, improve health and achievement, and just happen to help our planet to boot – all of which make sense for school administrators, teachers, and the students we serve.

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Celebrating Five Years of Incentivizing Sustainable School Practices

U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) began in 2011-2012, by defining “green school” according to three Pillars and recognizing 78 schools. In 2012-2013, ED added a District Sustainability Award and honored 64 schools and 14 districts.  It also began an annual tour spotlighting the practices of honorees and launched a Green Strides resources portal for all to employ. The 2013-2014 cycle named 48 school and 9 district honorees and added an honor for state officials. 2015 brought a postsecondary category, honoring 9 colleges and universities, 14 districts, and 58 schools recognized, and saw the revamping of the Green Strides portal.

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Just as I find it hard to believe my baby will turn one next week, I don’t know how it is that U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) hit five years of operation this one. On Wednesday, we recognized 47 schools, 15 districts, 11 postsecondary institutions, and one state education agency official at a Washington, DC ceremony for their efforts to cultivate sustainable, healthy facilities, wellness practices, and authentic, place-based learning.

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Thinking about the Meaning of ‘Green’ as We Recognize Schools, Districts, and Colleges this Earth Day

U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) began in 2011-2012, recognizing 78 green schools. In 2012-2013, ED added a District Sustainability Award and honored 64 schools and 14 districts. The 2013-2014 cycle had 48 school honorees and 9 district honorees. 2014-2015 brought 58 schools, 14 districts, and nine first-ever Postsecondary Sustainability Award recipients.

For the fifth consecutive year, to celebrate Earth Day, the U.S. Secretary of Education announced the 2016 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS), including District Sustainability Awardees and Postsecondary Sustainability Awardees. Joined by Managing Director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality Christy Goldfuss, Secretary King celebrated the 47 schools, 15 districts, and 11 postsecondary institutions chosen this year for their leadership in reducing environmental impact and utility costs, promoting better health for students and staff, and offering effective sustainability education.

As I think reflect on these first five years of our award, I sometimes wonder if “green” was the best choice of name, since it leads to occasional misinterpretation. To be clear, we define a “green” or “sustainable” school, as a healthy, efficient learning environment where school budgets are not drained by utility costs and students can use their very school building (whether older or new) as a learning tool.

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Large School Districts Come Together to Prioritize Sustainability

I once heard a student ask: “To change everything, we need everybody to take action. How will you engage others in developing a brighter, more just global community?” When I think back to that student’s question, I’m pleased to now report that 21 large districts have come together with the support of the Green Schools Alliance (GSA) to collaborate on more sustainable school options.

Represented by their sustainability personnel, these districts have formed the GSA District Collaborative to accelerate hands-on environmental action in school communities across the nation. Over the years, district sustainability officials had shared frustrations over higher prices for more sustainable products and policies that encumbered their work. This sparked a conversation about collaborating to affect major change, particularly in purchasing. Instead of creating their own separate association, they asked the Green Schools Alliance to house the coalition.

The Collaborative is comprised of 21 U.S. school districts – eight of which are among the 12 largest districts in the country. Collectively, these districts affect the lives of 3.6 million children in 5,726 schools with more than 550 million square feet of building area. The school districts have committed to working together and joined the Alliance as individual members, pledging to reduce their climate and ecological impact; connect their students to nature; and educate and engage their communities on climate and conservation. The charter members of the District Collaborative are:

  • New York City Department of Education, NY
  • Chicago Public Schools, IL
  • Clark County School District, NV
  • Broward County Public Schools, FL
  • Houston Independent School District, TX
  • Orange County Public Schools, FL
  • Fairfax County Public Schools, VA
  • The School District of Palm Beach County, FL
  • The School District of Philadelphia, PA
  • San Diego Unified School District, CA
  • Denver Public Schools, CO
  • Austin Independent School District, TX
  • Virginia Beach City Public Schools, VA
  • San Francisco Unified School District, CA
  • Boston Public Schools, MA
  • District of Columbia Public Schools, DC
  • Oakland Unified School District, CA
  • Detroit Public Schools, MI
  • Lincoln Public Schools, NE
  • Fayette County Public Schools, KY
  • Kansas City Public Schools, MO

These districts concur that every child has a right to learn, engage, and play in a healthy and sustainable environment where every person is aware of and accountable for their impact. Together, they will work in four key areas:

  • Leveraging collective purchasing power to increase access to sustainable alternatives;
  • Influencing local, regional, and national policy decisions;
  • Building and sharing district-level best practices; and
  • Contributing to the development of district-level sustainability programs.

The Collaborative is excited to be working within the GSA to develop programs that directly impact students, including project-based STEAM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Art-Mathematics) initiatives and leadership training programs for middle and high school students.

Later in 2016, the Green Schools Alliance will be releasing a new version of its online community, still based on its long-term goals of peer-to-peer networking and best practices sharing. The new community will enable students and school professionals to more easily search for resources to make their school more sustainable and learn the leadership skills to affect that change. The second phase of the online platform will include a web-based measurement and reporting platform/dashboard that will improve data collection and reporting of resource efficiencies and other sustainability programs in member schools.

District Collaborative membership is open to districts with more than 40,000 students. For more information, visit www.greenschoolsalliance.org/district-collaborative. If your district has less than 40,000 students or you are part of an individual school, you can still benefit from the work of the Collaborative. See http://www.greenschoolsalliance.org/membership for more information.

Dr. Sharon Jaye, D.Ed., SFP is Executive Director of the Green Schools Alliance and former Director of Sustainability for New York City Department of Education.

Welcoming Baby Green Ribbon… Sustainably

Over the past five years, I have had the task of breathing life into our U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS), growing the award to recognize not just schools, but also districts, postsecondary institutions, and state education agency officials, and to encompass social media, newsletter, resource and webinar portal, and annual tour, in addition to recognition award. At the same time, participating stakeholders, feds, states, districts, and schools have taught me about sustainable schools — and sustainable living.

Íñigo Steven Falken joined the Green Ribbon family on July 29.

Íñigo Steven Falken joined the Green Ribbon family on July 29.

Welcoming the other “Baby Green Ribbon” turned out to be a lesson in letting go and in living in accordance with the Pillars of our award. It was only natural that I implement our Pillars as I prepared for his arrival. We skied, swam, practiced yoga, hit the gym, and hiked through the pregnancy (including the day he was born). I investigated early learning centers with a view toward daylighting, nutrition, outdoor time, and walk or bikeability to school. I bought baby clothing and gear pre-loved, and wore a recycled maternity dress to our ceremony. I strove to be more resource efficient, since any single mom can certainly stand to cost-save on utilities.

With the support of supervisors at ED, I found work-life balance running this outreach and engagement initiative on a flexible schedule from Colorado. Now in our fifth cycle of the award, I’ve learned that we can incentivize change, spotlight innovative practices, and connect individuals, but that all of this works best when I push a little less and flow a little more.

Andrea and Íñigo live out the Pillars of the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools Award.

Andrea and Íñigo live out the Pillars of the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools Award.

Despite all of these gains, I admit that when 41 weeks rolled around, I panicked. Baby Green Ribbon’s lesson was, once again, by straining more, he wouldn’t necessarily arrive faster. Indeed, as I had experienced with both “projects,” patience has an important place in our sustainability work – individually, in schools, and in government.

After 41 weeks and three days, on July 29th, I welcomed Baby Boy Green Ribbon, Íñigo Steven Falken, in water at Colorado’s oldest free-standing birth clinic, Mountain Midwifery Center. Weighing 7 pounds, 10 ounces, and measuring 20 inches, he was well worth the wait.

We are taking a break from the Green Strides Tour this year, but will be back to highlight innovative practices across the country next fall. The announcement of the 2016 cohort will once again take place on Earth Day and we will celebrate honorees at a fifth annual ceremony in July. Íñi can’t wait to meet his green schools family and to learn school and lifelong conservation, wellness, and environmental learning practices.

Andrea Suarez Falken is Director of U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools and ED’s Facilities, Health, and Environment Liaison. To learn more about U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools, visit our website. You may also subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Duncan Praises Sustainable Schools and Announces New Green Strides Site

Part of preparing students for success in the twenty-first century is making sure they are good stewards of the environment. U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools began in order to recognize schools, districts, and institutions of higher education that reduce environmental impact and costs, improve health and wellness, and teach sustainability literacy. Today, the 2015 cohort of U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) was recognized at a ceremony at the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, DC, where honorees received sustainably crafted plaques and flags. Honorees then attended a celebration hosted by the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council and Senator Patty Murray’s Office, where they met their Congressional representatives, and some also participated in tours offered by the National Park Service and Department of Energy.

2015 Green Ribbon SchoolsJUST ANNOUNCED: The 2015 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools!

Posted by U.S. Department of Education on Wednesday, April 22, 2015

 

Secretary Duncan addressed attendees accompanied by Managing Director of the White House Council for Environmental Quality Christy Goldfuss and NOAA Director of Education Louisa Koch. He congratulated the honorees by highlighting their “common sense ways to invest more in education rather than utility bills, improve health and attendance and, and excite students about real-world learning.”

As part of the ceremony, Secretary Duncan announced the re-launch of Green Strides, a new user-friendly site that serves as a one-stop shop for the resources that all schools can use to save money, improve health, and engage their students with authentic sustainability learning. The new site is thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council. The Green Strides site features a calendar of webinars offered by a host of non-profit and federal collaborators explaining the use of these resources. The site showcases the cohorts of honorees – schools, districts, and the most recent postsecondary additions–in a searchable map to facilitate their promising practices’ replication nationwide.

To learn more about this year’s U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools, District Sustainability Awardees, and Postsecondary Sustainability Awardees, visit our website and annual Highlights Report. You may also subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. In the upcoming 2015-2016 awards cycle, state education authorities are once again invited to nominate green schools, districts, colleges, and universities by February 1st, 2016 and to encourage all schools to make use of these money-saving, health- and achievement-enhancing environmentally sustainable practices.

Andrea Suarez Falken is Director of U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools and ED’s Facilities, Health, and Environment Liaison.

Recognizing Green Schools and Districts – and Colleges! – This Earth Day

U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) began in 2011-2012, recognizing 78 green schools. In 2012-2013, ED added a District Sustainability Award and honored 64 schools and 14 districts. The 2013-2014 cycle had 48 school honorees and 9 district honorees. 2015 is the inaugural year of the Postsecondary Sustainability Award.

To celebrate Earth Day, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the 2015 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS), District Sustainability Awardees, and the first-ever Postsecondary Sustainability Awardees. Joined by Managing Director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality Christy Goldfuss, Secretary Duncan celebrated the 58 schools, 14 districts, and nine postsecondary institutions chosen for their progress in reducing environmental impact and utility costs, promoting better health for students and staff, and offering effective environmental education, including civics, STEM and green career pathways.

Reiterating the Department’s support for sustainable schools, Secretary Duncan praised the honorees, “They demonstrate how sustainability concepts allow students to expand their traditional learning into the real world and to create change for the betterment of communities. This authentic learning engages students in all subjects, and bolsters their critical thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving capacities.”

The honorees were selected from a pool of candidates voluntarily nominated by thirty state education agencies across the country, with honorees selected from 28 of these jurisdictions. The schools serve diverse populations, with 52 public and six private schools, including 35 elementary, 19 middle, and 17 high schools, with several offering various K-12 variations. Forty-seven percent of this year’s honorees serve disadvantaged students, 22 percent are rural, and one-third of the postsecondary honorees are community colleges. Many also serve pre-K students, demonstrating that health, wellness, and environmental concepts can be taught to every student at every level. Honorees also show that their efforts not only improve health and learning, but also save schools money in utility costs which can be applied directly back to the classroom.

Read about this year’s honorees and their achievements in this year’s state-by-state .

There are many tools and resources available to all schools, prekindergarten to postsecondary, to help with sustainable facilities, wellness practices, and environmental learning. You can find free resources available through the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Strides portal. You can also stay up to date through the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools’ webpage, where you can connect with us through Facebook, Twitter, and the newsletter.

With the help of these tools, your school, district, or postsecondary institution may be eligible to apply in your state for one if its nominations to U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools in an upcoming year. Schools, districts and postsecondary institutions are encouraged to contact their state education authorities for more information on state applications. While a few state authorities don’t yet participate, hearing from interested schools may change that.

Andrea Suarez Falken is Director of U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools and ED’s Facilities, Health, and Environment Liaison.

A Deeper Shade of Green: A District Sustainability Plan Encompasses Facilities, Operations, and Instruction

Note: The U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools program recognizes schools, districts and postsecondary institutions that are 1) reducing environmental impact and costs; 2) improving health and wellness; and 3) teaching environmental education. To share innovative practices in these three ‘Pillars,’ the Department conducts an annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour of honorees.

Making the decision to “go green” is an important step toward building 21st-century school systems in this country. And, as our decades-long experience in Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) shows, it takes commitment, collaboration, culture change, and comprehensive planning to turn a deeper shade of green.

School Energy and Recycling Teams (SERTs) are comprised of students, teachers, and administrators at each school. (Photo credit: Montgomery County Public Schools)

School Energy and Recycling Teams (SERTs) are comprised of students, teachers, and administrators at each school. (Photo credit: Montgomery County Public Schools)

MCPS’ commitment to good environmental stewardship spans more than 35 years. We began laying the foundation for sustainability in the 1980s and 1990s through dedicated energy and utilities management, including automation of building systems, lighting retrofits, and energy efficient design in new constructions. Today, we have a district-wide sustainability plan championed by the superintendent of schools and it’s implemented at every level of our system.

We’re working hard. We’re getting results. And, we’re getting noticed.

We’re proud that MCPS has received the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools District Sustainability Award and four school awards since 2012. These honors are the result of tremendous collaboration among many offices and departments, including Facilities, Materials Management, Transportation, Information Management, and the Office of Curriculum and Instruction.

We’re integrating operations with instruction in several ways:

  • Building and grounds provide a safe and healthy environment for students;
  • Resource-efficient and renewable energy technologies offer authentic learning; and
  • Conservation practices help the school system save money on operations.

Our district-wide focus on sustainability creates opportunities to involve students in conservation practices as they learn the why and how of those practices.

We have found that a key to the cultural change required for a sustainable school district is getting buy-in from the school community: convincing the staff and students at every school that conservation pays off – quite literally.

A major step forward in this effort was the formation of School Energy and Recycling Teams (SERTs), which are comprised of students, teachers, and administrators at each school. Empowered with quarterly energy use reports to monitor usage and recycling scores, school teams create and implement plans for continued improvement. District-wide savings generated by improved energy and waste management practices are returned to schools, creating further incentives to reduce their utility bills.

Our SERT program unleashes creativity, enthusiasm, and resourcefulness on the part of students and staff. It complements the MCPS K-12 environmental literacy curriculum by providing practical stewardship projects, like those showcased during this month’s Green Strides Best Practices Tour of Francis Scott Key Middle School, one of 14 LEED Gold Certified schools in MCPS. During the tour, Francis Scott Key students spoke about their role in recycling materials at their school and described how they monitor lighting and computer status in classrooms after school. The school features geothermal heating and cooling, a 100 KW solar photovoltaic system, occupancy sensors, and a state-of-the-art storm water management system, all of which provide authentic lessons and project opportunities for teachers and students to explore, research, and analyze.

In MCPS, our Environmental Sustainability Management Plan outlines our goals, strategies, actions, and measurements for a whole array of sustainability areas including energy, transportation, information technology, recycling, and cleaning. Perhaps most importantly, it includes a strong focus on environmental literacy. The plan is a working document that will evolve as new sustainable technologies and practices are invented, and it will continue to help students become better environmental stewards of the world they will inherit.

Laurie Jenkins is Supervisor of Environmental Education Programs and Sean Gallagher is Assistant Director of Facilities Management at Montgomery County Public Schools.

Boulder Valley School District Shines in Solar-Powered Learning

Note: U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools recognizes schools, districts and postsecondary institutions that are 1) reducing environmental impact and costs; 2) improving health and wellness; and 3) teaching environmental education. To share innovative practices in these three ‘Pillars,’ the Department conducts an annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour of honorees.

Imagine a gymnasium filled with children eagerly raising their hands during a school-wide event when asked the question, “How is electricity at your school produced?” In many of the schools in Boulder Valley School District (BVSD), with our annual 300-plus days of Colorado sunshine, the answer to that question is an enthusiastic “SOLAR POWER!”

We were delighted to showcase our solar program during the 2014 Green Strides Best Practices Tour which visited BVSD Sept 17. Approximately 8 percent of our district-wide energy needs are met by solar, with panels on 28 of our 55 schools. By taking advantage of community partnerships, grants and bond money, we’ve been able to install solar power in schools across the district.

(Photo credit: Boulder Valley School District)

The growing dome greenhouse at Columbine Elementary. (Photo credit: Boulder Valley School District)

The Renew Our Schools Program, for example, helped support the installation of solar panels at Arapahoe Ridge High School and kick-started the creation of a Green Team, who we heard from on the first stop of the tour. This team led efforts to green the school, including competing in BVSD’s Energy Challenge, an effort to conserve energy through behavioral change among building occupants. While the solar panels help raise awareness about alternative energy and give students data to manipulate, student-led conservation measures, such as educating the school community about ways to save energy, auditing the school’s usage and taking follow up action on the findings, lead to even greater energy savings.

Additionally, a bond program in 2006 funded the solar panels and other green features at LEED Platinum Casey Middle School, which was also part of the tour. The solar panels double as cover for bike parking, offering shade and weather protection to the many students who bike to school year-round as part of the Alternative Transportation Program. Teachers at Casey incorporate live data from the Green Touch Screen and hosted Energy Days in which students learned about solar energy and baked cookies using a solar oven, among other interactive lessons. The sun not only provides clean electricity, but floods the school with natural daylight by design, so students and staff can be at their most productive.

During the tour’s stop at Columbine Elementary, before visiting the community supported gardens and growing dome greenhouse, we headed to the rooftop to see the roughly 100kW photovoltaic system. The system is part of a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) BVSD signed with Solar City in June 2011. The 14 schools in the agreement have large-scale systems that provide an additional 1.4 MW of solar power for the district and 15 to 30 percent of each school’s electricity. All the schools in the PPA have websites showing live data from the solar panels and real-time energy consumption. These schools are using materials provided by the National Energy Education Development Project and Solar  City for lessons about renewable energy and efficiency, providing standards-based real life examples of sustainability, math and science.

The Sustainability Management System has guided this work, and the District has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars and has significantly reduced our environmental footprint. However, we see the real value from our sustainability efforts in educating our students and using these opportunities to prepare our students to be engaged environmental stewards and successful, life-long learners.

Dr. Ghita Carroll is Sustainability Coordinator at the Boulder Valley School District.

Making the Finances of Green Schools Work in Minnesota

Note: U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools recognizes schools, districts and postsecondary institutions that are 1) reducing environmental impact and costs; 2) improving health and wellness; and 3) teaching environmental education. To share innovative practices in these three ‘Pillars,’ the Department conducts an annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour of honorees.

Safeguarding the environment for future generations is a laudable goal, but when you’re managing a fast-growing school district’s bottom line, you need to also know that trying to do this makes financial sense. In the Waconia Public School system we’ve learned that going green can be the fiscally prudent path. Providing safe, healthy and sustainable learning spaces does not have to be an expensive choice, but it does require collaboration, creative problem solving, and a shared vision to do what is right for students, staff, community and the planet.

At Waconia Public Schools, we approach resource conservation, environmental education, and wellness with innovative and cost-effective solutions. Our Director of Finance and Operations worked with our school board to approve a financing plan that allows us to use conservation cost savings, energy rebates and other incentives to pay for additional environmental and energy conservation improvements. The Waconia School District qualified for $46,000 in energy rebates, and we’re saving an estimated $117,000 in utility and operations costs annually as a direct result of these improvements. Our district also saves over 1.2 million gallons of water, nearly one million kilowatt hours of electricity, and over 17,000 therms of gas annually.

Waconia Public Schools approaches resource conservation, environmental education, and wellness with innovative and cost-effective solutions. (Photo credit: Waconia Public Schools)

Waconia Public Schools approaches resource conservation, environmental education, and wellness with innovative and cost-effective solutions. (Photo credit: Waconia Public Schools)

The success of our conservation initiatives relies not only on smart financing, but on sophisticated monitoring equipment, on careful analysis of resource use, and on always keeping an open mind about lower environmental impact solutions. Our district began by getting a handle on its resource use through auditing, analyzing, and monitoring usage among all of its facilities. We work closely with environmental engineers at B3 Benchmarking to improve conservation and efficient use of resources. We identify opportunities to save money on utility costs by re-tuning existing equipment and installing resource-efficient equipment.

We also actively engage in partnerships to create efficiency in scale and help secure alternative funding. For example, we recently partnered with the City of Waconia and Carver County to secure a grant from the Minnesota Board of Water & Soil Resources to install a water reuse system to capture untreated storm water and reduce pollutants entering Burandt Lake adjacent to Bayview Elementary. This project combined with other water quality initiatives will result in Burandt Lake being “delisted” from the State Impaired Waters list within 5 years. The collected water is also used to irrigate our nearby athletic fields.

Our most recent collaborative project is with Minnesota Department of Commerce, Xcel Energy, JJR Power, and Innovative Power Systems to install solar panels on our high school gymnasium. These solar panels will produce 50,000 kilowatt-hours of energy – or about 5% of total annual energy usage at Waconia High School – without costing the district a dime for their installation. JJR Power will provide the capital to install the system. It is financed through a combination of the “Made in Minnesota Solar Incentive Program,” Federal tax credit, MACRS depreciation and the execution of a 15-year Power Purchase Agreement.

These are just a few of the partnerships that are helping Waconia Public Schools to develop, improve and sustain programs that reduce environmental impact, promote health, and equip students with a solid foundation of environmental literacy. At Waconia, it’s about being good stewards of all our resources, both financial and environmental. For a school district wishing to save money, environmental conservation simply makes fiscal sense.

Richard Scott is Director of Grants & Development at Waconia Public Schools.

All Big Things Start Small

Note: U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools recognizes schools, districts and postsecondary institutions that are 1) reducing environmental impact and costs; 2) improving health and wellness; and 3) teaching environmental education. To share innovative practices in these three ‘Pillars,’ the Department conducts an annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour of honorees.

Recently I was at Edgewood School in Prior Lake, Minn., where preschoolers were sitting on tiny tree stumps in an outdoor classroom custom-made just for them. They loved their little chairs and were completely engaged in the morning meeting with their teacher. Seeing these littlest ones learning so effectively in nature got me thinking about how one small initiative can grow into something much bigger.

Preschool students at Edgewood School have the option to enroll in Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools’ nature-based preschool. (Photo credit: Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools)

Preschool students at Edgewood School have the option to enroll in Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools’ nature-based preschool. (Photo credit: Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools)

The Environmental Education (EE) programs at Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools started out in just this way: one small effort at one school. Yet this year we found ourselves showcasing our districtwide EE programs during the recent Green Strides Best Practices Tour of Five Hawks and Jeffers Pond Elementary.

On any given day in Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools, you will find teachers and students outside, certainly for recreational activities – but also for science, math, reading, even art. Environmental Education is embedded into nearly all curricular areas, districtwide.

Visitors often ask, “How did you make this happen in all of your schools?” The answer is, we started small. Five Hawks Elementary set the stage for EE programming with teachers who are passionate about helping students build critical thinking skills, fostering a love for the environment and getting students outdoors.

One of the first things they did was plan an annual Outdoor Learning Festival, where students do hands-on activities, taking water samples, studying leaf structure and entomology, and much more.

The success of that program got a lot of attention and led staff, parents and school board members to embed environmental education into our district’s Strategic Plan, which will guide the expansion of our environmental focus.

Now EE also takes place through Community Education classes and student clubs in grades 3-12. Yes, students choose to be part of EE outside of the school day! Students will tell you it’s “cool” to be in these clubs. In fact, students have to apply to be in the programs because there is so much interest. At the high school level, students can even earn a varsity letter for their participation in the EcoTeam club.

Today all six of our elementary schools host an Outdoor Learning Festival each year, like the one we showcased on the Green Strides Tour. But beyond the Festivals, EE is truly “embedded” into our curriculum throughout the school day, every day. We have become the first district-wide E-STEM schools in the state of Minnesota.

Throughout all of this, our Strategic Plan has been our guide. We are grateful to the many innovative teachers who have made E-STEM a reality and for the students who are such enthusiastic learners. On the days I witness programs like the one at Edgewood, I am reminded that all big things start out small.

Dr. Sue Ann Gruver is the Superintendent of Schools for Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools in Minnesota

Blue Skies and Sustainable Cultures in Colorado’s Green Schools

Note: U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools recognizes schools, districts and postsecondary institutions that are 1) reducing environmental impact and costs; 2) improving health and wellness; and 3) teaching environmental education. To share innovative practices in these three ‘Pillars,’ the Department conducts an annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour of honorees.

September 17th was a time of celebration for Colorado as we became the focus of the Green Strides Best Practices Tour. Andrea Suarez Falken, ED Green Ribbon Schools Director, and other federal, state, and local government officials, visited schools and districts throughout the state that have demonstrated sustainable practices and environmental leadership in public education. As a science teacher and school administrator at Kinard Middle School in Fort Collins, Colorado, I was honored to have these visitors witness firsthand what we have accomplished and celebrate our commitment to environmental stewardship, health, and environmental education.

At Kinard Middle School, we believe in providing students with an authentic, engaging learning environment that reflects the civic responsibilities they will face in the real world. It is our responsibility as teachers to empower students to own their learning through practical applications that let them impact their school and community in meaningful, healthy ways. This is what gets me out of bed every day: I want students to leave a lasting legacy on their world.

composting

The Kinard C.A.R.E.S. class composts over 20,000 lbs. of food waste each year. (Photo credit: Kinard Core Knowledge Middle School)

Eight years ago, my students and I initiated an environmental leadership class at our school called Kinard C.A.R.E.S. (Community, Action, Results, Environment, Service) focused on inspiring change in our school and community through service-learning projects. The effort has resulted in composting over 20,000 lbs. of food waste each year at our school and diverting approximately 70 percent of our trash from the landfill each year.

Our environmental leadership curriculum replaces the traditional “learning silos” with an interdisciplinary curriculum that focuses on the complexities of systems in the real world. We are developing 21st century skills through team-building exercises to promote creativity, innovation, problem solving, and effective communication, as demonstrated by our students during a guided tour of school facilities.

When I heard that the Green Strides Tour was coming, it was a no-brainer that students would lead the event. Visitors were impressed with how articulately they described unique energy features like geothermal heating and cooling, wind-powered electricity, and natural daylight, all of which contribute to make Kinard the most energy- efficient school in the state of Colorado. This wasn’t rote learning; students clearly showed that they owned these concepts and their school as well as any architect or designer.

The group also visited two of our neighboring schools: Wellington Middle School and Lesher Middle School. At Wellington, the school’s Eco-Club is made up of students who work to keep the school focused on saving energy, recycling, and tracking the school’s wind turbine energy data. Students visit a local dairy, and sewage and water treatment facilities to experience first-hand the concepts they learn in classes, and is host for Innovation Camp, a STEM camp for middle school students across northern Colorado. At Lesher, we heard about an impressive Bike-to-School Week, when 40 percent of students and staff log 4,000 miles, an Iron Viking Adventure Race, a sustainability class, and a 2006 $3.7 million remodel resulting in a new media center, fitness center, art room, and general education classrooms with energy-efficient features, including unit ventilators, solar tubes, double-pane thermal windows, solar shades, and new lighting.

In creating a comprehensive green school, my colleagues and I helped students identify how their actions influence our interconnected world; maximized learning with collaborative green building practices and conservation behaviors; discovered that student success is a product of a healthy school environment; and ultimately realized that the three Pillars of ED-GRS are profound guideposts for all schools, whatever their starting point.

Here in Poudre School District, the tour felt like a celebration and culmination of the vision we’ve been striving for over many years. I’ve never been more proud of our students and the work that they have contributed to our school culture. 

Chris Bergmann is Assistant Principal at Kinard Core Knowledge Middle School in Fort Collins, Colorado.