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.

It’s a school where students eat fresh – often student-grown and local – food, and participate in plenty of outdoors physical activity and learning. Green schools ensure healthy water and air, and a clean, educationally appropriate school facility that enables, rather than encumbers, learning.

Lastly, a green school is a place where students learn authentically indoors and, just as often, out, through hands-on projects that connect them to their school campus, community, and world, preparing them with subject matter and thinking skills to take on the careers and broader societal challenges of our future.

During a year of renewed attention to the state of our nation’s school infrastructure, I hope other schools, districts, and postsecondary institutions can take heart and inspiration from our 2016 honorees’ efforts, this year, more than ever. You can read about what works in facility, health, and sustainability learning in our Highlights of the 2016 Honorees Report.

Understanding now that sustainable schools aren’t an add-on to a quality education, but rather a necessary foundation, all schools can find free resources available through our Green Strides portal to advance in our Pillars and move toward the achievements of these honorees. You can stay up to date with other opportunities for your school with our Facebook, Twitter, and newsletter.

With 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 the coming cycle. Schools, districts and postsecondary institutions are encouraged to contact their state education authorities for more information on state applications published in the summer or fall. While a few state authorities don’t yet participate, hearing from interested schools may change that.

I’ve said it before and it bears repeating, I’d be thrilled to put this award out of business. Call it green, sustainable, or something else – let’s have every school meet these standards of sustainable excellence!

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