Green Ribbon Schools celebrated for sustainability

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Among the 48 institutions recently named 2014 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools are eight schools or districts where AFT members work hard to maintain the outstanding programs that move us all toward a greener, more environmentally sustainable world.

green school

The designation, created with support from the AFT, the National Education Association, the U.S. Green Building Council, the Center for Green Schools and more, is designed to establish more incentives for sustainability in schools and school districts. The named schools must meet specific criteria in each of three different categories: environmental impact, improving health and wellness, and teaching sustainability. Among the schools’ many award-winning features are edible gardens, wildlife habitats, classroom recycling and environmentally driven curricula.

"It is absolutely true that where you learn matters," said Mary Cathryn Ricker, AFT executive vice president, at a reception for award recipients and supporters. "We've come a long way from a voice in the wilderness to the third year of recognizing Green Ribbon Schools." Calling sustainability a "priority" for the AFT, Ricker noted that the concept is an especially good fit with the AFT's community schools initiatives, and that the collaboration among the more than 80 organizations involved in the Department of Education's Green Ribbon Schools program is important.

Ricker also gave a proud shoutout to the AFT's member schools. Among them are those in the Broward County (Fla.) Public Schools system, where staff maintain 75 butterfly gardens and 38 edible schoolyards. Professional development there ensures that staff can effectively integrate agriculture, natural landscaping and wildlife habitat into lessons. Outside the classroom, energy-saving policies and practices saved more than $11 million, and an evaluation of outdoor irrigation systems helped decrease water consumption by nearly 220 million gallons.

Award-winning Woodland Primary School in Gages Lake, Ill., was the first school in the state to receive a LEED Silver Rating, a prestigious recognition of green building principles. The school features low-flush toilets, lights that turn on only when a room is in use, and energy-efficient appliances, among other energy-saving elements. The school also holds healthy potlucks for staff, maintains staff walking and jogging clubs, and incorporates yoga breaks into the day.

At Five Hawks Elementary in Minnesota, staff members were able to save the prairie land behind the school from development, then use the land as a learning center. Students called "Junior Naturalists" maintain bird feeders and walking trails there, learning by doing; in the outdoor classrooms, they follow a curriculum that has replaced indoor lessons with outdoor learning in every subject. Five Hawks staff conduct districtwide training courses to teach staff at all schools how to incorporate environmental learning into their own classes. The school is on the "Healthy Schools, High-Achieving Students" Best Practices Tour through six states this fall, which Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced at the awards ceremony July 22.

Behind all these programs are support staff and teachers maintaining the native landscapes and vegetable gardens; engineering and maintaining building systems; managing recycling, compost and trash collection programs; and turning all these green practices into science, mathematics and language arts lessons. With so many ways to demonstrate a commitment to environmental sustainability, these AFT members are setting an example for children who will undoubtedly take these life lessons forward to create a healthier environment for themselves and, eventually, for their own children.

[Virginia Myers]

July 23, 2014