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.

Second, ED-GRS is about health, wellness and our connection to the land, all especially beneficial to high needs students. Students learn to eat healthy foods and recycle and reuse as much as they can. We saw gardens at every site during our visit, where children can taste a carrot they pulled from the ground, have a chance to play outside, and learn how air, light, and a little dirt are as good for the mind and body as they are for the carrots.

Dimensions of Learning Academy in Kenosha celebrated “Dark Sky Week” by looking at the stars, something foreign to most Americans today. I often wonder: how different would Washington, D.C., be if we could see the vast Milky Way at night and contemplate how small we are in the whole universe?  At Westlawn Elementary School in Cedarburg, I spoke with one special education teacher who brought stressed kids from Milwaukee’s inner-city into the woods for a hike and saw their fear and worry melt away as their outdoor competence grew. The woods worked for me, too, when I was a stressed small-town girl from Minnesota. For me, the woods are an essential part of health and wellness.

Third, ED-GRS is about learning: STEM, environmental project-based learning, and civics.  I do want to give a shout-out to the grown-ups on this one. During our listening session in Fort Atkinson School District, it was inspiring to hear how school board members, facilities managers, elected officials, business and civic leaders, public utility experts, parents, school administrators, teachers, and others worked together to build a whole district that saves enough in energy costs to hire more teachers. Our country is at its best when we use evidence, analysis, and public discourse to identify solutions to our most pressing problems and take advantage of our most promising opportunities.  These are also, of course, critical problem-solving skills to ensuring equal access to healthy, safe, educationally exceptional schools for all students.

I believe the needs of students with disabilities will be met in new ways by schools seeking U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools recognition. We will all benefit when communities have the courage to innovate, which is, of course, what these ED-GRS honorees are all about.

Sue Swenson is deputy assistant secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services