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.

As ED-GRS Director, I celebrate the honorees’ achievements each passing year while continuing to look for ways to make this recognition award fresh and useful to the school communities we serve. From tentative beginnings, it has become quite clear to us here at ED that sustainable school practices are here to stay and that our federal agency requires some understanding of school facilities, health, and environment matters, particularly as they affect learning.  I’ve been honored to serve in this evolving role, to read each and every one of our nominations in full every year of this award, and to preside over our annual ceremony, which is always a wonderfully celebratory event.

Learning from the many national non-profit and federal colleagues who have educated us in these areas over the last five years, I too have come to think of healthy, safe, sustainable schools that offer real-world learning opportunities as something should be the norm in all of our schools. These are certainly what I now look for in educating my own son, who will begin in a nature-inspired preschool in the coming year, and has spent every day of his first year getting outdoors and active with me, whether swimming, hiking, running, or biking.

Five years and many schools, districts, postsecondary institutions, resources, webinars and tour legs later, it’s my hope that this low-budget — but, we like to think, still highly relevant — award will continue to ignite change well beyond the deserving schools that we honor, spreading the gospel of sustainable practices and free Green Strides resources from which all schools can benefit.   Five years, and I believe that the green school revolution is just taking off.

In the upcoming 2016-2017 awards cycle, state education authorities are once again invited to nominate green schools, districts, colleges, and universities by February 1st, 2017 and to encourage all schools to make use of these money-saving, health- and  achievement-enhancing environmentally sustainable practices.

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.

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