Green Schools, education institutions that promote interaction with nature as a learning tool while fostering an environmentally friendly campus predicated on healthy living, are now receiving state recognition for their efforts through the Green Ribbon Schools (GRS) award program.
The 2011-2012 school year has been the first in which the United States Department of Education (USDE) has officially recognized the efforts Green Schools have been making to promote environmentally sustainable learning environments.
By awarding achievements in environmental conservation, the USDE hopes to standardize cost-effective green practices which have statistically improved environmental awareness among students across the nation.
Within the GRS Program, schools are focused on resource conservation and sustainable education practices. For example by minimizing their staff and students’ ecological footprint, and encouraging interaction with nature. These structural alterations are achieved entirely by schools, with the USDE remaining an external player.
To be nominated by the USDE, schools must follow the pillars of the GRS Program. The first of these involves reducing a school’s overall ecological footprint and increasing its energy efficiency— achieved by reducing green house gas emissions and waste production while also promoting alternative modes of transportation.
Second, the GRS program encourages schools to implement health programs comprising high nutritive standards and fitness mandates for students; outdoor recreation and the integration of natural systems into curriculum is similarly supported.
There are also fiscal benefits to going green. National studies within the US have demonstrated lower running costs for such schools. The Council Rock School District in Pennsylvania reduced its energy consumption in 16 schools by nearly 50 percent. By spending only $150 000, the district saved more than $7 million over 4 years. This demonstrates that major renovations including solar panels and new ground source heat exchange systems—which do involve relatively high initial costs of installation—can eventually save schools more than 50 percent in energy costs, financially benefiting both the school itself and the average taxpayer.
The Green RIbbon has fueled involvement in environmental issues among students. Moreover, students engaged in green activities were found to have an increased interest in science- and math-based academic subjects, while also becoming significantly more involved in extra-curricular environmental projects.
Jonny Cohen, a 17 year old from Highland Park, Illinois, invented a way to retrofit school bus windshields. This resulted in reduced aerodynamic drag, increased mileage, decreased emissions of pollutants, and cut school bus fuel use cut by as much as 25 percent.
Schools have now begun to collaborate and share information within the Green School National Network (GSNN).
The GSNN aims to further the growth of the green school movement by providing networking space to those within the education, non-profit, corporate, and public sectors. The GSNN aims to establish a “green culture” within schools to ensure that future generations of students are environmentally educated and aware of the everyday practices entailed in creating a sustainable community.
The GSNN has five main goals: focusing on education and professional development by conducting conferences and seminars; providing resources and information to those within the network by maintaining a website and newsletter; facilitating communication within the network to foster collaboration; working with national partners in attempts to reform environmental advocacy and policy, and, lastly, the GSSN pays strong attention to environmental research in order to collect statistical evidence of the benefits green initiatives bring.
The GSNN founded the Green Schools National Conference to foster communication, research and media attention. The first of these conferences was held in February in Denver, Colorado. During the conference the US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discussed the financial savings green initiatives bring, a fact that in direct opposition with the US government’s hesitation to encourage green practices because of the high startup costs. Duncan said that green schools can potentially save up to $100 000 per year—equivalent to the salaries of two teachers or 500 new text books. He pointed out that “Green Schools really are more of a win-win game,” rather than the “zero-sum game propositions” previously thought true.
Duncan also noted the health benefits green schools provide. Citing recent studies, he stated that “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that reducing indoor air pollution could prevent more than 65 percent, or 2 in 3 asthma cases among elementary school children.”
He also stated “Healthier school environments and healthier habits of nutrition and exercises make for happier, healthier, more attentive, and more productive students.”
The GSNN made student achievement and financial benefits of green schools the topics of primary focus within two seminars at the National Conference. A seminar entitled “Connecting Green and Healthy Schools with Student Achievement” focused on establishing a factual link between high levels of academic achievement and Green School environments. Another seminar examined existing green school financing and funding solutions alongside new strategies to encourage funding.
A relatively new concept, green school initiatives may seem a daunting endeavor for older, established educational institutions. Lacking the new equipment and financial resources to acquire these, some schools may feel unable to create functional environmental initiatives.
Duncan addressed this in the GSNN conference, stating “any school can take some relatively simple steps to become greener and promote environmental stewardship.” It is up to the schools themselves to make use of the resources and information provided by organizations such as the GSNN.
Once part of this network, any school can be environmentally friendly through a sustained effort that ultimately benefits both the nation and the global society.