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.


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.

South Florida’s Green Schools Forecast? Warm, Sunny, Healthy and Here to Stay!

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.

On Sept. 4, 2014, the School District of Palm Beach County was proud to welcome Andrea Falken, Director of U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS), and other federal, state, and local officials and stakeholders for this year’s “Healthy Schools, High-Achieving Students” Green Strides Best Practices Tour. Visitors were offered a unique view of how Palm Beach County is helping to grow Florida’s up-and-coming green generation, through local collaboration and district-wide programming.

Pine Jog Elementary in West Palm Beach, Fla. (Photo credit: School District of Palm Beach County)

Pine Jog Elementary, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (Photo credit: School District of Palm Beach County)

The tour began at a 2012 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School, Pine Jog Elementary, in West Palm Beach. Over 80 visitors were welcomed by the District’s Superintendent, E. Wayne Gent.He shared with the group our commitment to build and maintain green and healthy schools to foster high-achieving students.Visitors were treated to a choral presentation of “We’re Goin’ Green,” underscoring that all schools have an opportunity to conserve resources, improve efficiency, ensure health and wellness, and deliver inspiring environmental curriculum. Walking tours of the school highlighted all facets of this unique green school, from its pesticide-free gardens, outdoor creative learning centers, and overall sustainability curriculum, to its state-of-the-art LEED Gold certified building.

At the adjacent Pine Jog Environmental Education Center, part of Florida Atlantic University’s College of Education, visitors heard the inspiring story of their partnership. FAU President, Dr. John Kelly, emphasized his support for the District’s efforts to plant the seeds of sustainability in every Palm Beach County student. They also learned about a program central to furthering green schools efforts in Palm Beach County – the district’s Green Schools Recognition Program. The program recognizes and rewards schools for taking an innovative and holistic approach to going green and acts as a feeder program for state and national recognition.

The listening session brought together the district’s major division directors, as well as several principals, architects, and partners. For Palm Beach, green schools go far beyond buildings. They are creative centers of learning which promote sustainable practices, encourage health and wellness for their students and staff, and provide strong connections between the built and natural environments for all students, whatever their needs.

After a healthy lunch, visitors toured the newest green school in the district, Galaxy E3 Elementary, in Boynton Beach. Through dynamic leadership and strong community partnerships, Galaxy is not only the first school campus in Florida to target LEED Platinum status, but also offers its needy student population the most engaging STEM resources available, including a planetarium and aquarium, as well as other museum-quality displays, designed to hook kids on science.

To conclude the day’s event, I was honored to join the city’s mayor, Jeri Muoio, and the District’s Chief of Support Operations, Steve Bonino, in offering closing thoughts at the Lake Pavilion, another LEED construction. Here in Palm Beach County, we believe that all schools can make green strides through careful planning, maintenance, and operation, as well as through thoughtful integration of environmental principles into the curriculum. Whether they are in new or old buildings, all children deserve healthy schools to give them the best chance of being high-achieving students.

Christina Davis is the Sustainability Coordinator for the School District of Palm Beach County.

Broward Schools: Preserving the Planet for Posterity through Partnerships

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.

Shifting the culture of Broward schools through strong partnerships was the theme of the Broward portion of the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) Green Strides Best Practices tour in south Florida on Sept. 5. Within the school system, our partners and priorities include transportation, facilities and construction, environmental conservation and utility management, information and technology, health and wellness, food and nutrition services and curriculum integration district offices. Our external partners, including our state, county and local municipalities and businesses, were also featured along the tour.


South Plantation High School’s environmental magnet programs were touted during the tour. (Photo credit: Broward County Public Schools)

In Broward, we’ve made recognizing and celebrating our shared successes a crucial part of our sustained green strides effort. Broward honors schools with district-wide “P3: Preserving our Planet for Posterity” recognition awards, and also this helps identify candidates for the state and national awards. The P3 awards are jointly managed and funded by Broward Schools, Broward County Division of Environmental Planning and Community Resilience, and a consortium of environmental educators, the Environmental Conservation Organization (ECO).

During our tour, we showcased strong Broward community teamwork, beginning as visitors boarded the eco-friendly, propane-fueled yellow school bus. Broward County Public Schools recently upgraded our bus fleet with the purchase of 98 Bluebird AutoGas buses. Each bus is cheaper to operate and emits 150,000 fewer pounds of carbon dioxide than a diesel-fueled bus over its lifetime.

At the first stop, Silver Ridge Elementary students shared how they connect with their local environment and its unique place in the history of Florida through their annual “Tan-a-kee-kee” festival. Students in every grade connect with the Earth as they learn about local Native American cultures and how their values and practices can help enrich and inform sustainability practices today.

The tour stopped next at Driftwood Middle School, a 2013 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School, where students exemplify the “Healthy Schools: High-Achieving Students” theme as an Academy of Health and Wellness. During gym classes, they monitor their own heart rates, study math in the garden, conduct energy audits and monitor their hydroponic system for a balance of nutrients. Students also experience a hands-on integrated curriculum that helps prepare them as environmental health and wellness stewards for the community.

South Plantation High School’s session highlighted the many levels of partnership that are required for success in a large district with diverse needs. Everyone in attendance learned at least one new best practice from the thirteen speakers representing each of the three pillars of ED-GRS, and nearly ever district division. Food and Nutrition’s healthy, fresh and local food program and Student Health Services’ asthma awareness education were featured, along with energy and water use reduction and the communication partnership with Information and Technology. The visit featured a student-led tour of the Everglades and Environmental Sciences magnet programs – including environmental research, horticulture, animal science, agricultural science and a spin around the bus loop by the award-winning Solar Knights’ solar car.


Students at New River Middle Marine Sciences Magnet Middle School spend their days conducting scientific research on the beach. (Photo credit: Broward County Public Schools)

We ended our day at Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, part of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) state park system, where New River Middle Marine Sciences Magnet Middle School students spend their days conducting scientific research to better understand their local environment with the assistance of the DEP program Project LIFE – Learning in Florida’s Environment and the NOAA-funded Project GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment). These students enthusiastically shared their work and correlated their measurements to the newly installed weather station. As Greg Ira, DEP Director, Office of Environmental Education and Sustainable Initiatives, says, “There is no better place to learn about environmental and sustainability education than Florida’s State Parks. We applaud the commitment of Broward County Schools for bringing students to these unique places for real-world learning experiences right in their own backyard.

Perhaps best of all, what these students learn in their own backyard, they can take with them wherever they go, and practice over the course of a lifetime.

Dr. Lisa Ventry Milenkovic is Science Curriculum Supervisor, Math, Science & Gifted Department, Instruction and Intervention Division, Broward County Public Schools.

Uniting for Sustainable Excellence in Kentucky

Note: U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) 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 and widely-available resources in these three ‘Pillars,’ the Department conducts an annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour of honorees.  A state and local official write about the honorees visited on the tour in Kentucky.

Locust Trace AgriScience Farm is a new, net zero construction that opened in August 2011

Locust Trace AgriScience is a new, net zero construction that opened in August 2011 (Photo courtesy of Fayette County Public Schools)

Kentucky schools have been working to make our facilities more sustainable, and to ensure that they support student wellness and environmental literacy. But it was U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) that provided the framework our state needed to address these areas cohesively. The award prompted an open dialogue and helped us reach new stakeholders who might not have otherwise been engaged in sustainability.

Ultimately, each conversation that we have about building performance, student wellness, or environmental learning is rooted in the understanding that they are most effective when addressed together. To bring all of our many partners together and highlight this coordinated work, Kentucky was pleased to co-host the first leg of the second annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour.

Kentucky’s districts that integrate the three pillars of ED-GRS let students take ownership of their school facilities and well-being.

In Scott County, students at Northern Elementary explained to guests how they measured the brightness of their classrooms and then removed overhead bulbs to save money and ensure a better learning environment. At Georgetown Middle School, school leadership emphasizes comprehensive health, ensuring that students have adequate physical activity and nutrition — even outside of school hours — with breakfast, dinner, and weekend meal programs.

At Rosa Parks Elementary in Fayette County, visitors saw the results of the students’ campaign to reduce car idling near school in order to improve public health. The Wellington Elementary School Living Lab team then taught visitors about their sustainable building’s features, including photovoltaic solar panels, a rainwater capture and reuse system, a thermal hot water system, permeable pavers, a rain garden, automatic lighting controls, native landscaping, and an outdoor classroom.

Rosa Parks Elementary School

Rosa Parks Elementary School uses the U.S. EPA’s Portfolio Manager to track its energy reduction progress of more than 70 percent achieved through simple conservation measures. (Photo courtesy of Fayette County Public Schools)

At Locust Trace Agriscience Farm, a student guided visitors through the net zero-building that opened in August of 2011. The school featured permeable pavement, solar panels, solatube daylighting, a green roof, and a constructed wetlands waste disposal system. This low-environmental impact, low-utility cost facility supports green agricultural career paths ranging from Agricultural Power Mechanics to Veterinary Science. Additionally, the small school has formed unique partnerships on the 82-acre farm that benefit other nearby organizations, including culinary and horse training programs.

The tour was a powerful reminder of how Kentucky’s independent programs for sustainability, environmental education, energy management, and health at diverse statewide and local organizations have come together in one unified effort to support schools moving toward the Pillars of ED-GRS.

Seeing the tremendous positive impact this approach has on student achievement in our state, we’re more committed than ever to making our school campuses greener and healthier, and our students more environmentally literate. In order for our community to collaborate in ensuring that all students achieve at high levels and are prepared to excel in a global society, the choice is clear.

Elizabeth Schmitz is Executive Director at the Kentucky Environmental Education Council, part of the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet. Tresine Logsdon is the Sustainability and Energy Curriculum Coordinator for Fayette County Public Schools in Lexington, Kentucky.

Moving Sustainability Forward in the Mountain State

Note: U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) 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 and widely-available resources in these three ‘Pillars,’ the Department conducts an annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour of honorees. Two non-profit organization school sustainability leaders write about the schools and district honorees visited on the tour in West Virginia.


At Eastwood Elementary, in Morgantown, West Virginia, enhanced wall and roof insulation and a geothermal heating and cooling system allow the school to use about 25 percent less energy than a conventional one of the same size. (Photo courtesy of Eastwood Elementary)

Here in West Virginia, we were excited to highlight our U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School (ED-GRS) honorees during the second annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour. West Virginia was a fitting place to kick off the 2014 tour because, when the ED-GRS program was announced a few years ago, non-profit organizations like ours were quick to offer support to our state education agency.

Before 2011, many organizations were holding green schools workshops and events that helped participants develop plans to become more sustainable. But ED-GRS has provided a common goal for those engaged in the sustainable schools movement, and a new direction for our conversation on healthy schools and high-achieving students.

What has emerged is West Virginia Sustainable Schools (WVSS) initiative, which we use to recruit applicants for the national award. Led by the West Virginia Department of Education, WVSS has become a conduit through which agencies and organizations channel sustainability programming in curriculum, health and wellness, and facilities to schools.

ED-GRS has helped what was once a small but deeply-rooted sustainability community to grow less isolated, and more effective. Now we are using a few exemplary schools to inspire other schools to expand their efforts.

For this reason, it was a particular pleasure to have federal, state and local visitors tour our ED-GRS honorees to learn about innovative, hands-on curricula, community partnerships, and sustainability practices that advance learning, health and cost savings.

From pulling invasive garlic mustard weed to monitoring water quality in a local stream, Petersburg Elementary School, our first stop, partners with field experts to effectively teach science and stewardship while conserving Appalachia’s precious land.

Later, at Wyoming County Career and Technical Center, in the heart of coal country, students, school leaders, and community partners led guests through an energy efficient modular home, a 8.4 kW solar array, a biodiesel processor, and a recycling trailer, all student-built in sustainable career pathways.


Cameron Middle-High School in Cameron, West Virginia. Both the school and Marshall County, a District Sustainability Awardee, have received U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools accolades. (Photo courtesy of Cameron Middle-High School)

In Marshall County Schools, we toured Hilltop Elementary and Cameron Middle-High School. Marshall County has made sustainable building practices and learning a priority from early learning to agricultural technology programs, saving the district over $5 million in 10 years. From low-impact buses to green cleaning, recycling to school gardens, these schools are teaching environmental concepts, along with entrepreneurial and civic skills, and wellness practices, in healthy, safe, lower utility-cost facilities.

Finally, visitors toured Eastwood Elementary in Morgantown, where every attention was given to reducing environmental impact and improving health in the construction of the new facility, from its geothermal heating and cooling system to expansive daylighting to safe and healthy building materials.

Where we once felt we were facing an insurmountable task – striving for increased health and a sustainable future for the children of our state – we now feel a new sense of purpose and momentum. A sustainably literate, college- and career-ready, and civically-engaged generation of West Virginians is on the rise. Striving toward the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools’ three Pillars is now our unifying Mountain State goal.

Vicki Fenwick-Judy is Director of the Appalachian Program at The Mountain Institute. Mark Swiger is a USGBC Center for Green Schools’ Chapter Committees National Chair.

Secretary Duncan Praises Sustainable Schools and Announces Tour

Secretary Arne Duncan, Assistant Secretary of Commerce Mark Schaefer and Acting Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality Mike Boots celebrate green schools. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Secretary Arne Duncan, Assistant Secretary of Commerce Mark Schaefer and Acting Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality Mike Boots celebrate green schools. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

For the third consecutive year, a cohort of U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) and District Sustainability Awardees received accolades at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., for their sustainable, healthy facilities, wellness practices, and sustainability learning. Honorees participated in a celebration offered by the Center for Green Schools and Senator Tom Harkin’s office, where they met their Congressional representatives, and in a  range of tours offered by the National Park Service, the U.S. Botanical Gardens, the Department of Energy, the White House, and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, among others.

Joined by Acting Chair of the White House Council for Environmental Quality Mike Boots and U.S. Department of Commerce Assistant Secretary Mark Schaefer, Secretary Duncan praised these school and district sustainability all-stars at an afternoon ceremony for their efforts to reduce both their impact on the environment and utility costs through conservation and facilities upgrades, keeping students healthy with daily wellness practices, and using environmental education to teach all subjects, especially science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), civics, and green careers.

Secretary Duncan also announced the “Healthy Schools, High-Achieving Students” Best Practices Tour. The six-state tour will highlight practices that improve the wellness, productivity, and achievement of students and faculty through health, safety, and educational improvements in school facilities, as well as environmental education, nutrition and physical activity. This year’s tour will visit several Kentucky, West Virginia, Minnesota, Florida, Colorado and Maryland honorees from August to October.

What have honorees done to receive this award? They’re turning out the lights, adding insulation, changing light bulbs, implementing building automation, bringing daylight into their classrooms, and installing renewable energy sources, allowing them to save money. Their efforts  ensure healthy, safe air quality, better ventilation, and reduced contaminants, and they regularly maintain building systems, ban idling vehicles, purchase safe cleaning supplies, and implement integrated pest management.

Students also use the school building and grounds as instruments for learning. Using the school building, surrounding natural environments and school gardens as instruments for learning, students are eating healthy, local, and school-grown foods and are getting more physical activity outdoors. Nearly all honorees take advantage of Farm to School programs and through programs like Safe Routes to School or Walking School Bus, students reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve the quality of air. Their efforts improve the health of schools, literally helping students and staff to breathe easier. Students in Green Ribbon schools gain life-long civic skills and stewardship values, hands-on experience with science, technology, engineering and math and graduate prepared for the jobs of tomorrow.

Given all these benefits, it’s not surprising that ED has added a third award category for the 2014-2015 awards cycle. In addition to schools and districts, state authorities are invited to nominate green colleges and universities by February 1, 2015.

To learn more about this year’s U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools and District Sustainability Awardees, visit our website. You may also subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Kyle Flood is a confidential assistant in the Office of the General Counsel and social media manager for the ED Green Team.

Recognizing Green Schools on Earth Day

To celebrate Earth Day, earlier today U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the 2014 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) and District Sustainability Award recipients. Joined in an online live stream by Acting Chief White House Council on Environmental Quality Mike Boots, Secretary Duncan celebrated the forty-eight schools and nine school districts chosen for their exemplary efforts 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.

Students gardening at an elementary school. Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education

Students gardening at an elementary school. Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education

Reiterating the Department’s support for green schools, Secretary Duncan praised the selected schools and districts, stating: “Today’s honorees are modeling a comprehensive approach to being green by encompassing facility, wellness and learning into their daily operations.” Duncan went on to say that the recipients “are demonstrating ways schools can simultaneously cut costs; improve health, and engage students with hands-on learning that prepares them with the thinking skills necessary to be successful in college and careers.

The forty-eight schools and nine school districts were selected from a pool of candidates voluntarily nominated by thirty state education agencies across the country. The schools serve various grade levels, including 29 elementary, 16 middle, and 18 high schools, with several offering various K-12 variations. Many schools also serve pre-K students, demonstrating that health, wellness, and environmental concepts can be taught to every student, even the earliest learners. Selected schools and districts also demonstrated that their efforts not only improve physical, environmental, and nutritional health of school communities, but also save schools money in utility costs which can be applied directly back to where it is needed most – the classrooms. Read all about this year’s honorees and their tremendous achievements.

In addition to recognizing this year’s U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools honorees, Secretary Duncan announced a new nomination category for the 2014-2015 awards cycle. This award will offer higher education institutions the chance to receive much-deserved recognition for their  resource conservation, healthy living and learning environments, and commitment to education for sustainability. For this award, states are encouraged to document how the nominees’ sustainability in facilities, health and learning has also reduced college costs, increased completion rates, led to higher rates of employment, and ensured robust civic skills among graduates. As with the Pre-K to 12 school and district nominations, which have honored 48 percent disadvantaged selectees over the course of the last three cycles, authorities are also encouraged to consider diverse types of institutions.

There are many tools and resources available to all schools, Pre-K to postsecondary, to help with resource conservation, health and to ensure education for sustainability. You can find free resources available through the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Strides Resources and Webinar Series. You can also stay up to date through the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools’ webpage, where you can connect with the Facebook, twitter, and newsletter.

With these tools, next fall your school may be ready to apply in your state for one if its nominations to the 2015 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools! State education agencies are encouraged to indicate their intent to nominate next spring by August 1, 2014 and schools, districts and postsecondary institutions to contact their state agencies for more information on applications.

Kyle Flood is a confidential assistant in the Office of the General Counsel and social media manager for the ED Green Team.

Engaging Students to Improve Environmental and Outdoor Education

The Urban Waters Federal Partnership, a 13-agency initiative, aims to stimulate local economies, create jobs, improve quality of life, and protect health by revitalizing urban waterways and the communities around them, focusing on under-served urban communities.

Currently, the partnership has 18 locations across the nation. These locations have or will build partnerships among local, state and federal stakeholders – as well as schools. Here is just a sampling of how students are getting in on the Urban Waters action:

Anacostia StudentsAt Bladensburg Waterfront Park in Bladensburg, Md., the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Urban Waters team assists Neval Thomas Elementary school students, parents and teachers as they paddle along the Anacostia River during the Wilderness Inquiry Canoemobile on October 22, 2013.

During the visit, the students had an outdoor education experience learning about canoeing, stormwater pollution and nesting bird species. The Wilderness Inquiry Canoemobile spent the entire week in DC and explored the Anacostia River with approximately 500 of the area’s public school students.

To view upcoming Wilderness Inquiry opportunities and events across the country, view their website:

In the New Orleans region, students and teachers have an opportunity to explore and learn about southeastern Louisiana’s coastal wetlands at the University of New Orleans Shea Penland Coastal Education and Research Facility (CERF).

NOLA studentsThese K-12 grade students engage in hands-on experience in the basic estuarine processes, coastal environmental science, and coastal restoration with a focus on the values of the wetlands and the issues that face them through field trips and workshops. In addition, the students meet and learn from the professionals at Louisiana’s State and Federal agencies and local partner organizations that protect coastal wetlands. For more information on CERF, visit their website at

Resources are also available to teachers, parents and others, including data on water quality and health aspects of the wetlands through another partner; the Coastal Wetlands, Planning, Protection, and Restoration Act program. View curricula and other activities, including an interactive educational and entertaining CD on Louisiana wetlands here. To learn more about how these partners and CERF engage local public schools and their students, view this YouTube video.

Denver StudentsAlong the South Platte River in Denver, Colo., the Greenway Foundation motivates young public school students to engage the outdoors through environmental education programs. The Greenway River Ranger Internship Program introduces high school students to natural resource careers through environmental education training, hands-on teaching experiences with elementary students, job-readiness workshops and outdoor learning such as water quality sampling at Denver public parks along the South Platte River and its tributaries. The program aims to inspire the next generation of environmental leaders equipped with the knowledge, skills and motivation to become stewards and informed decision makers.

The Greenway Foundation has been connecting tens of thousands of Denver youth and their families to urban waterways through school based field trips, summer camps and community events through its education arm, South Platte River Environmental Education (SPREE). For more information and videos, visit their website.

Through the Urban Waters Federal Partnership and the 18 local partnerships, federal agencies are engaging America’s students in order to improve environmental and outdoor education in urban communities, allowing students to reconnect to our nation’s treasured rivers and lakes.

ED Team Visits Green Ribbon Honorees in Oregon and Washington

Catlin Gabel

On the West Coast portion of the ‘Education Built to Last’ Facilities Best Practices Tour, ED officials visited the Catlin Gabel School, in Portland, Ore., where the garden is curricular focus of middle school classes and a school-wide garden club. Each year, students have a sustainability theme woven into their curriculum.

When my colleague, Andrea Falken, director of the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS), asked me to accompany her on site visits to honored schools in Oregon and Washington, I quickly agreed. As part of the Education Built to Last Facilities Best Practices Tour, the plan was to make brief visits over three days to about a dozen schools across the Pacific Northwest, recognizing them for their outstanding environmental impact, health, and education and bringing more attention to their strategies, so that other schools might do more of the same.

As a long-time environmentalist, I was eager to learn more about how top-notch K-12 educators are helping students understand the perils that face our planet. How do these educators get the message across without scaring the kids? Do the students understand the root causes of the problems and their personal role in solving them? What books, films, experiments, and lessons are most useful? How do the best schools link environmental education with more traditional subjects such as social studies, science and math?

What I discovered in Oregon and Washington, however, surprised me. The questions that I thought were most important were, indeed, important, but it turned out they were secondary to a far more vital issue: what is the quality of leadership at each school?

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Going Green in the Golden State

Students in gardenCalifornia was proud to welcome Andrea Falken, director of U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS), and other federal, state, and local officials and stakeholders for the start of the West Coast leg of this summer’s inspired Education Built to Last Facilities Best Practices Tour.

A long-time supporter of green school facilities, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said, “I’m thrilled to see these outstanding schools showcased as part of the national tour on best practices. The students, teachers, parents, and communities have made countless efforts to improve the environmental sustainability of their campuses, increase school health as well as boost academic achievement.”

At the California Department of Education, ED-GRS is administered in School Facilities and Transportation Services, and we adhere to the time-tested architectural adage, form follows function. Our office envisions school facilities that enhance the achievement of all students and are learner-centered, safe, sustainable, and centers of the community.

Last month, several ED-Green Ribbon Schools showcased these attributes, reminding us just how much can be accomplished in the three pillars of ED-GRS, even in older and portable buildings. These schools are leading the way by ensuring students are vested partners in their education and conscious, civic-minded citizens. From composting, gardening, and recycling to xeriscaping, daylighting, and rainwater harvesting—these students get it.

Students in busTour participants visited five California ED-GRS honorees in two days. At Journey School, a Waldorf-style charter school, an eco-literacy curriculum and partnerships with Earthroots Field School and Master Gardeners of Orange County grow the whole child green—despite the school being housed on a campus comprised entirely of portable buildings.

At Environmental Charter High School, students are leaders in their community, operating a bicycle repair shop to reduce vehicle miles traveled to and from school.

At Grand View Elementary School, parents and Grades of Green founders champion Trash Free Tuesdays and Walk to School Wednesdays, things any school can do to start the cultural shift toward greener, more sustainable schools and communities.

And, at adjacent Long Beach schools Longfellow Elementary School and Hughes Middle School, recycling rules! The schools have also made huge strides to reduce their resource use and environmental impact. Although the main school buildings date to the 1940s, both earned perfect ENERGY STAR scores.

Although state bond funds have contributed $35.4 billion dollars to school construction and modernization since 1998, California is still faced with a huge need for capital investment—particularly for building renovation and replacement. The California Department of Education is working with lawmakers and other stakeholders to ensure that the next round of investment is guided by policy that links funding to educational programming, like high performance and career technical education.

Across California, schools are using the resources they have to improve efficiency, ensure health and wellness, and deliver effective and inspiring environmental curriculum. With the passage of 2012’s Proposition 39, that pool of resources is about to get bigger. Schools will have access to new funding to plan and execute energy efficiency projects. “Your capital expenditures can immediately help your General Fund,” reminded tour participant Eric Bakke of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

With Prop. 39 money coming down the pipeline and the prospect of a new statewide bond on the horizon, California is sure to see more exemplary facilities and ED-GRS honorees in the coming years.  California’s application for ED-GRS 2014 is available now on the California Department of Education Web page.

Kathleen Moore is Director of the School Facilities and Transportation Services Division, and Lesley Taylor is the program lead for ED-GRS at the California Department of Education.

Increasing Access Through U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools

I spend a lot of time thinking about students with disabilities, their families and their schools.  In fact, I believe the disability topic is a natural part of most of our work here at the U.S. Department of Education.  I really like finding the connection. Last week, I had the opportunity to travel with U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) Director Andrea Falken to visit honorees in southeast Wisconsin, where I learned that disability is, indeed, a real part of the whole ED-GRS initiative. Connected to disability? As we say in the Midwest: You betcha!

Duck Release

Students at Purdy Elementary, in Fort Atkinson School District, release the ducklings hatched in the school courtyard at their constructed boardwalk and wetland.

First, ED-GRS is about facilities. Any advocate worth their salt knows how facilities affect students with disabilities. When schools think about sustainability, it is natural to think about ways to improve accessibility, whether that means level access for a wheelchair, or natural daylight for students who are hyper-aware of the “buzz” made by fluorescent lights, or reduced chemicals for students and adults with specific sensitivities.

During our visit to Fort Atkinson School District, we visited Purdy Elementary School and the boardwalk and wetland that the school constructed across the street. The wetland was deep enough to allow life other than just cattails to thrive there. The boardwalk provides students or visitors in wheelchairs access to the teeming ecology all around. Imagine using a wheelchair and being limited to paved surfaces or buildings. With access to the wetland the biology books can come alive. To ensure level access, I suggested that the school extend the walk just a few feet on each end.

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