Feature: Charter, Magnet, and Private Schools Recognized for Going Green

When the first class of U.S. Department of Education ED-Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) were recognized this past June in Washington, D.C., nearly a third of the schools hailed from the ranks of the charter, magnet, and private schools — three constituent programs that are part of the Office of Innovation and Improvement.

The dozen private, eight charter, and four magnet schools, like all of the 78 ED-Green Ribbon Schools honored by the Department of Education with the support of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency, exercise a comprehensive approach to creating “green” environments. All ED-GRS honorees are measured against the three “pillars” of the national award: reducing environmental impact and increasing energy efficiency; promoting improved health for students and staff; and ensuring a high-quality environmental and outdoor education to prepare students with the 21st century skills and sustainability concepts needed in the growing global economy.

“The purpose of the ED-Green Ribbon Schools initiative was to bring some coherence to the many ‘healthy’ and ‘green’ school efforts we knew already existed,” said Andrea Suarez Falken, director of the ED-GRS program. “And we’re very pleased that charter, magnet, and private schools are well represented in this first class of the recognized schools for the great strides they are making in all three of our pillars.”

Reducing environmental impact and increasing energy efficiency

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and use of renewable energy are among the key elements of ED-Green Ribbon Schools’ commitments to achieving the first pillar. At Lucy School, the only LEED Platinum school facility in Maryland, more than 40 percent of its energy needs are met using on-site solar installations, supplemented by purchases of wind-generated energy. Sixty-five percent of the electricity needs of the Athenian School in Danville, Calif., are supplied by solar panels — appropriately arrayed in the shape of an “A” — that sit atop a hillside on the 75-acre campus of rolling, oak-covered hills to the east of San Francisco. Solar panels atop both the gym and the new Eleanor Dase Center of the Athenian School provide for those buildings’ electricity needs.

The geothermal pump house provides alternative energy and serves as a science classroom. (photo courtesy of American Hebrew Academy)

The geothermal pump house provides alternative energy and serves as a science classroom. (photo courtesy of American Hebrew Academy)

Five hundred feet below the soccer field and track of the American Hebrew Academy, located near Greensboro, N.C., is one of the world’s largest closed loop geothermal heating and cooling systems. This $3 million dollar investment, which includes over 750 wells, continuously recycles natural water to heat and cool everything on campus and produces a 40-percent annual savings in energy costs compared to conventional methods. As the projected number of students at the Academy increases, the geothermal heating and cooling system will increase in efficiency, resulting in a projected 20-percent increase in energy-cost savings. What’s more, the geothermal pump house is one of several “living classrooms” on campus where students learn about geothermal energy and earth science. A number of other ED-GRSs have smaller scale, on-site renewable-energy installations on their campuses to demonstrate how solar, wind, or other alternative energy sources function, as well as to provide for a small portion of their schools’ energy consumption.

Improving water quality and conserving its use is another of the key elements, and like a number of other ED-Green Ribbon Schools, Lucy School uses a roof garden to supply filtered rainwater for the school’s restrooms. As an arts-based preschool, music and songs are employed to remind its youngest students about the importance of saving water. “Turn off the water, don’t let it run,” the three-year-olds sing as they prepare to wash their hands. “Save a little water for everyone.” At Learning Gate Community School, the first public school to achieve LEED platinum certification, a 10,000-gallon rainwater harvesting system puts grey water to good use both indoors and out. Students study the ocean biome half of each year (the forest biome the other half) and also integrate the arts — through plays, original songs, interpretative dance, and art work— to create Biome Celebrations for students, parents, and visitors.

Promoting improved health for students and staff

Lucy School students at work Lucy School students at work
Lucy School students work the garden as part of daily outdoor time. (photo courtesy of Lucy School)

At the Lucy School, which is located on 17 rural acres that contain a pond and waterfall, forests, and rolling hills in northern Maryland, students spend an hour each day outdoors. When not involved in the unstructured play outdoors, students take exploration walks, work in a garden, or gather experiences and artifacts for their nature journals. Chemical-based fertilizers, smoking, and vehicle idling are restricted on campus; carpooling by parents is encouraged with tuition discounts for those who voluntarily participate.

At the Environmental Charter High School (ECHS), located just off the 405 in the Lawndale community of Los Angeles, students operate a bicycle repair shop on campus to promote bike riding to reduce carbon emissions and energy use and to improve the city’s air quality and students’ health. Click here to see how this effort, combined with gardens, a greenhouse, chicken and rabbit coops, recycling, and other initiatives, are making sustainability ambassadors of all ECHS students.

As a residential school, the American Hebrew Academy serves 20 meals weekly to the 80 percent of its students who live on campus. Five years ago, school leaders decided to patronize local farms for the produce that makes up much of the daily menu, leading to not only reduced greenhouse gas emissions and transportation costs to get food to the campus, but also to an increase in meal quality. And what’s left over from meals goes to the compost that supplies the school’s on-site garden with nutrients. The garden supplies enough food for not only the Academy residents, but the local food bank as well.

Students at the Academy for Global Citizenship, located in an industrial part of Chicago, not only benefit from eating locally grown, all-organic breakfasts and lunches, but their families and community members also have access, at reduced costs, to locally produced foods, as well as cooking workshops to learn ways to prepare healthy meals at home. Students visit local farms, where they receive recommendations for what to plant in their schoolyard garden. And, to encourage parents to plant their own family gardens, the school involves them in the harvesting process, offering workshops on growing techniques — more than 10 family gardens have resulted from this effort.

Preparing students for a sustainable future

The third pillar of the ED-Green Ribbon Schools recognition award is ensuring that students are environmentally and sustainability literate, preparing them to be tomorrow’s environmental leaders. Recognized schools pursue this outcome on three fronts: use of interdisciplinary learning about the key relationships between environmental, energy, and human systems; integration of environment and sustainability with STEM content and skills; and students applying knowledge and skills in civic engagement to sustainability and environmental issues in their local communities.

At the Lothrop Science and Technology Magnet in Omaha, Neb., students learn about the environment through hands-on lessons and activities that combine subjects like English language arts and science with the help of several national and international curricular initiatives. The importance of water ─ the ways in which it provides the glue for all of the earth’s systems, for instance ─ is taught using local streams, tributaries, and ponds with materials from Project WET (Water Education for Teachers) that encourages and supports the use of math, music, creative movement, poetry, and other language arts as multiple ways for students to learn key concepts about water’s many purposes in society. Lothrop students also learn how to make informed decisions about wildlife. They are taught to act in responsible ways and take constructive action concerning wildlife and the environment through the school’s involvement with Project WILD, an initiative of the Council for Environmental Education that promotes wildlife-based conservation and environmental education through a cross-disciplinary approach.

Partnerships with universities play an important role for both the American Hebrew Academy and the STAR (Service To All Relations) School where STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and its connections to the environment are concerned. The University of North Carolina Greensboro opens its research labs to Academy students for internships. Among the research topics students pursue are optimal sustainable grasses for cattle feeding and dealing with disease vectors. In Arizona, data from the STAR School’s students and teachers about the local water, air, and soil are analyzed with the help of staff at the Northern Arizona University, which also provides STAR students with mentoring opportunities in engineering and sciences.

“Rot Rangers” in every Garlough Environmental Magnet School (GEMS) classroom ensure all discarded items are in their correct places. (photo courtesy of GEMS)

“Rot Rangers” in every Garlough Environmental Magnet School (GEMS) classroom ensure all discarded items are in their correct places. (photo courtesy of GEMS)

Students at the Garlough Environmental Magnet School in West Saint Paul, Minn., learn about the environment through an integrated approach in partnership with the Dodge Nature Center, located across from the school. In this video, Garlough’s multicultural naturalist teacher and the Dodge Nature Center’s liaison to the school explain the ways in which environmental themes are integrated with math, science, the arts, and humanities as the students explore the forests, hiking trails, lakes, wetlands, and working farm that comprise the 320-acre nature center.

At Lothrop Science and Technology Magnet, community service learning is mandatory for all of its pre-K through 4th -grade students, and all projects have an environmental focus. A wide range of topics and activities are pursued, from building outdoor classrooms to experimenting with alternative pest control procedures. The school is one of hundreds affiliated with Project Learning Tree, a nationwide program supported by the U.S. Forest Service. Community-service projects are also an important part of the curriculum of the Evergreen Community Charter School in Asheville, N.C., where the K-8th -grade classes average 200 field experiences each year. As an “eco conscious school,” Evergreen has been recognized by the Environmental Educators of North Carolina for creating an environmentally literate student body whose students in turn educate the public about important environmental issues. And its 5th graders took first prize in the National Environmental Education Foundation’s Photo Blog Contest this past school year for their “River Critters” essay-photo entry.

The media arts also play a unique role at the STAR School, where students create media products that are meaningful for themselves and their communities. The “place-based media arts” program permits STAR students to not only express what they are learning, but also to document the unique environmental features of their school. A video documentary, made by 7th and 8th graders, tells the story of the STAR School’s transformation of a former junkyard into the first charter school in the country to operate completely off the grid.

Students made this documentary about the STAR School, the country’s first off-grid, solar/wind-powered charter school.

ED-Green Ribbon Schools a year-round effort

The ED-Green Ribbon Schools recognition award, begun in September 2011, is the first comprehensive federal recognition award to address the environmental impact, health, and education of U.S. schools. But the impetus for the program came from organizations that have long championed green schools and environmental literacy for America’s students. In his remarks at the February 2012 National Green Schools Conference, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged the hard work of these organizations, declaring the Denver convening “a coming of age moment for the green movement in our schools.” He also credited them with helping to “pioneer a successful model for government partnerships” and one that led several federal agencies to work more closely together on behalf of schools.

For the 2013 Green Ribbon School Awards, 41 states and the District of Columbia plan to nominate schools, an increase of 10 states over the 2012 recognition process. State authorities’ nominations are due in February and a national ceremony to honor the selectees is set for next June 3. Throughout the year, however, all schools can participate in the Green Strides Webinar Series, which highlights the tools they can use to reduce their costs and environmental impact, improve health and wellness, and provide effective environmental and sustainability education. Other ways to connect with and the ED-Green Ribbon Schools and other federal resources and expertise are its blog, newsletter, and Facebook.