Members win a Green Ribbon for their school

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AFT members at an elementary school in New Mexico were among those honored at this year's Green Ribbon Schools awards ceremony July 19 in Washington, D.C.

Steve Von Osten, a member of the Rio Rancho School Employees Union, has helped spearhead environmental education at Sandia Vista Elementary School. The school's successes include an after-school green team that runs the school greenhouse and garden, a sharing program during lunchtime in which students can swap unopened food from a cooler, a backpack program that sends food home over the weekend, and a repurposing program through the school cafeteria in which food scraps go to feed local chickens and pigs.

Sandia Vista Elementary School in New Mexico

In fact, Von Osten says, everything the LEED-rated school does is "a byproduct of green thinking"—right down to its switch from plastic utensils to silverware and its decision to quit using plastic foam, which takes up one-quarter of the nation's landfills.

The fourth-grade teacher loves imparting to the next generation an understanding about our interdependence with the earth. "It's a good grade to teach," he says. "They still care what the teacher thinks."

Much support for the 700-student school has come from a districtwide environmental resource team, but this particular K-5 school has taken the initiative and run with it. For example, every classroom has recycling bins, and the school as a whole recycles far more than it trashes. Older students teach younger ones about sustainability, not just during the after-school program but throughout the school day and during outdoor activities complete with excursions to explore the natural environment. Master gardeners come in and teach the green team skills such as composting, planting bulbs and harvesting runoff water from the school's roof, which is then used to water the garden, especially in winter.

In his 31st year of teaching, Von Osten is central to all these efforts, and attended the awards ceremony in Washington along with other school employees, including Patricia Di Vasto, the school's principal and a longtime union supporter.

AFT New Mexico President Stephanie Ly is particularly proud of this collaboration between the principal and the green team, a partnership she credits for making Sandia Vista a green school in practice and not just in name.

"They're such a great team," Ly says. "This kind of national recognition is what happens when everybody works together to put children's health and well-being first."

Green Ribbon honors, sponsored by the U.S Education Department, go to schools with a record of reducing environmental impact and costs, including water and energy use; improving the wellness of students and staff; and teaching sustainability practices that everybody can use. AFT affiliates represent more than 20 of the Green Ribbon honorees from Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and New Mexico.

[Annette Licitra / Steve Von Osten photo]