Today I had the honor to name 78 schools as the first-ever U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools. When we set out a year ago to recognize comprehensive achievement in the areas of environmental impact, health and education, we didn’t know about the quality of the applications we would receive. But we discovered that these schools are engaging in some of the most innovative school reforms anywhere. These approaches are enabling the schools to reduce their environmental impact and costs; improve student health; and ensure that graduates are prepared to face the great challenges of the 21st century.
To save energy and decrease their environmental impact, the winning schools are using a range of methods. Many purchase renewable energy and generate it on school premises. One boasts the world’s largest closed loop geothermal heating and cooling system and another features the nation’s first off-grid solar and wind powered school. We’re honoring schools that use green roofs, pervious pavement, rain gardens, rain barrels, rain cisterns and low-flow water equipment of all types. At some of the winners, the buses run on ultra-low sulfur diesel, compressed natural gas or the discarded cooking oils of local restaurants. Their conservation efforts extend from the cafeteria to the classroom, as they devise reusable snack bags and water bottles; dine with reusable plates, napkins and utensils for meals; and save paper by converting to digital assignments and grading.
To keep students healthy and engaged in learning, there are almost as many innovative ideas as there are winning schools. Kids are outside climbing ropes, kayaking, orienteering and learning in their outdoor classrooms. They’re reading ‘on the green,’ conducting GPS mapping studies of creeks, performing water quality testing, creating and maintaining trails, tapping maple trees, reconstructing wetlands and going on wilderness adventures. Many students are growing their own food – with vegetable gardens, herb gardens, colonial gardens, organic gardens, butterfly gardens, aquaponic gardens, salad gardens, pizza gardens, lasagna gardens and Native American medicine wheel gardens – as well as fruit trees, berry patches, peach orchards and olive groves. They’re preparing their harvest in the kitchen, learning about its nutritional value in the classroom, and sending many pounds of produce to local food pantries. Winning schools are also ensuring that kids’ health is protected in other ways, by using certified green cleaning products, for example, or by posting “no idling” signs in the driveways and parking lots.
Today’s winners are also providing a comprehensive environmental education that is essential to help students become good citizens, prepared for life and work in the 21st century global economy. They are learning health, science, sustainable agriculture and business acumen by caring for their chickens, bunnies, goats, fish, ducks and bees. They tend to trout and salmon in the cassroom, on-site forests, ponds and lakes, or find ones nearby to adopt. Older students take Ecology, Environmental Leadership, Horticulture, Biology, Renewable Energy and AP Environmental Science. Students are learning green technologies, renewable energy and sustainability by converting cars to electric power and designing solar panels, solar cars and wind generators. Students are constructing energy efficient modular homes, retrofitting diesel engines, producing biofuel, welding recycled scrap metal and assembling robots.
It’s important to note that these schools represent a cross section of America. Almost half of the honored schools are serving disadvantaged students. Several of the winners serve American Indians; others’ enrollments are two-thirds Hispanic and another is 98 percent African American. Several dozen are high poverty where more than half of students receive free and reduced priced lunch.
Today we are shining the spotlight on 78 terrific and innovative schools, but our real aim is more ambitious. We don’t want just pockets of excellence – we want success to be the norm. All our children deserve green schools, as all our students deserve a healthy, sustainable and prosperous future.