In the heat of mid-summer, many of us partake in the time-honored tradition of heading to a state or county fair to ogle over the Blue Ribbon prizewinners and try out the latest inconceivable deep-fried-on-a stick concoction. My husband is one proud Minnesotan. At this year’s state fair, we’ll give the newcomer “Paneer on a Spear” a try as we marvel at how increasing diversity has brought this latest offering to sit side-by-side with his revered deep-fried macaroni cheese-curds. Both at the fair and beyond, Blue Ribbons are the mark of excellence, and nothing conjures summer tradition like a winning apple pie. But there’s a new ribbon on the American scene that’s demonstrating staying power.
This summer marks the five-year anniversary of the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools initiative designed to recognize early adopters across the country who are integrating sustainability ingredients into a recipe for a more relevant K-12 education. Its toehold within a federal agency reflects tremendous, hard-won validation that if we expect the next generation to lean in to the challenge of re-envisioning and then re-shaping and innovating our way to a greener, cleaner tomorrow, it can only happen if they spend their formative years within learning environments that place a high and visible value on providing a healthy, safe and sustainable education.
In 2010, our nation’s highly diverse environmental education community coalesced around an ambitious unifying goal to significantly elevate the value of a sustainability-focused K-12 education. Working together to agree upon and establish key essential "green school" criteria, dozens of environmental education organizations and leaders successfully engaged the U.S. Department of Education to officially recognize and celebrate individual schools, and eventually entire school districts, that were making headway to cultivate environmentally sustainable, healthy facilities, wellness practices, and place-based, authentic real-world learning opportunities that positioned the local environment as a learning laboratory worthy of study, investment and stewardship.
Specifically, the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Schools initiative aims to inspire schools, districts and, as of 2014, institutions of higher education to strive for 21st century excellence by highlighting promising practices and resources that all can employ, focused around three goals:
- Reduce environmental impact and costs;
- Improve the health and wellness of schools, students, and staff, and;
- Provide environmental education, across many disciplines, with emphasis on effectively incorporating STEM, civic skills, and green career pathways.
With the launch of the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools and District Sustainability Award in 2011-2012, we now have over 200 “Green Ribbon” winning schools and nearly 50 school districts from around the country. These winners provide an incredible showcase of achievable examples of what it looks like to provide a 21st-century education that engages students, teachers, staff, and community members, to lead by example as they work together to make learning more meaningful and rooted in practices needed to promote personal, community, and planetary health.
Last week, as a proud new Green Schools National Network Board Member, I was fortunate to attend the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon award ceremony. There I met some of the amazing change-makers whose recipes for achieving green school excellence are every bit as nuanced as granny’s pie crust secrets, but even so, are increasingly being replicated across our country. The gathering was full of outstanding students, teachers, principals and superintendents whose resourcefulness has forged productive partnerships with businesses, parks, farms, museums, nature centers, sporting facilities, religious institutions, townships and other entities to turn their green passion into daily reality.
Here is just a taste of a few 2016 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools schools that illustrate what is already possible and taking place today within and beyond the walls of our nation’s schools:
As the nation’s second largest school district, Los Angeles Unified School District, exemplifies urban sustainability even as it serves an extremely diverse population of more than 650,000 students, 76% of whom are eligible for free and reduced price lunch. When it comes to food, the district has made incredible strides to integrate food sources that have led to reduced emissions while increasing access to high quality nutrition. More than 375 schools have one or more on-site gardens maintained by students, staff, and community partners. The district also participates in California Thursdays and other farm-to-school programs; more than 70 percent of food comes from local growers in California. Obesity-prevention partnerships have led to a unique Bring the Farmer to Your School program, where local farmers visit Title I classrooms and teach about agriculture, farming as a career, water conservation, and the importance of eating more fresh fruits and vegetables and having an active lifestyle.
Right here in our nation’s capital, Capital City Public Charter School, Washington, D.C., provides hands-on urban ecology that reinforces valuable science learning while addressing pressing local environmental and community needs. For example, all students take either Environmental Science or Urban Ecology to graduate. All have the option to participate in an outdoor adventure program that includes camping, rock climbing and hiking, cultivating connections to the outdoors and promoting familiarity with lifelong fitness and health opportunities. Each expedition includes fieldwork and a service-learning project.
The first grader bee expedition, for example, includes meeting with a beekeeper and USDA scientist who discuss colony collapse disorder, how it affects bees, and in turn, our food supply and ecosystem. Students then engage in "healthy commerce" by learning how to make beeswax candles they sell at local farmer’s markets, with proceeds supporting local beehives.
And finally, Russell Cave Elementary School, in Fayette County, Kentucky, has achieved a 45 percent reduction in greenhouse gases and 49 percent energy and water reductions over six years. The 1926 facility was renovated to achieve ENERGY STAR certification. Once a month, the Russell Cave school cafeteria has a low-energy day when the cafeteria abstains from using ovens and other electrical equipment to provide lunch. Instead, they provide sack lunches for students and turn off cafeteria lights. On the health front, a physical education teacher has formed a student and staff health committee. This team brainstorms and implements healthy activities within the school, resulting in increases to the amount of activity students receive and healthier food options that are also lower on the food chain. Activities have included Wellness Wednesday, with extra movement breaks in the gym, and presentations by the physical education teacher during the morning news show. Russell Cave includes physical activity breaks during staff meetings. The school also participates in the national Green Apple Day of Service. Russell Cave’s goal is to educate students to become innovative, creative thinkers that are knowledgeable in energy usage and conservation.
Despite a growing cadre of green school champions spanning the entire country and situated within urban, rural, and suburban settings, these exemplars still represent the exception instead of the norm. The scope of the climate challenges before us mandates that every school become a green, healthy and ribbon-worthy school. As professor Lisa Kensler, author of the forthcoming book “Leadership for Green Schools,” shared with me, her study of successful green-minded school leaders suggests that shifting our educational enterprise to become a foundation for a more socially just, ecologically healthy, and economically viable society, will require powerful personal and collective leadership. Leadership that is rooted in a new frame of mind. Kensler’s book aims to help speed the transition by providing passionate, visionary leaders with proven practical tools and resources for translating theory into practices that advance sustainability goals while ensuring that core educational priorities are not only met but enhanced.
Just as Climate for Health is partnering with our nation’s leading health organizations to help elevate climate change as a visible health priority that requires action, the U.S. Department of Education is playing a critical role in advancing climate and environmental solutions by shining a spotlight on those schools who are already positioning sustainability and connections to the local environment and community, as essential to achieving not only academic excellence, but also to providing civic engagement experience and problem-solving skills. Let’s hope we can all look forward to a time when school-wide recycling and gardens are as commonplace and expected as the Minnesota State Fair’s "fried cheese curds on-a-stick," and when it will take far more exceptional sustainability concoctions to merit that coveted green ribbon.
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