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Phoenix Forward magazine

How U.S. schools are providing green education

When you think about going green, you might visualize recycling, planting an organic garden or reducing energy use at home. But did you know that heightened environmental awareness in the United States has inspired a movement in K–12 schools?

“There are literally thousands of schools across the country that have adopted green practices of one kind or another,” says Jennifer Seydel, PhD, founder and chief operating officer of Green Schools National Network, a nonprofit organization that helps advance the green schools cause and worked with the U.S. Department of Education to design the annual Green Ribbon Schools award.

The honor, given to more than 70 schools each year, recognizes efforts to minimize ecological footprints on campuses and educate students about the importance of preserving the environment.

Here are four ways some schools are going green:


Using energy-efficient buildings

More than 3,000 U.S. schools are LEED-certified buildings, designed specifically to reduce energy costs and water consumption. On average, these schools use 33 percent less energy and 32 percent less water than conventional ones, and save $100,000 per year each in operating costs.

R. Lewis Cordell, an instructor in the master’s in education program at the University of Phoenix® San Diego Campus, also teaches English at LEED-certified Sage Creek High School in Carlsbad, California.

“Everything on our campus is designed with energy efficiency in mind,” Cordell notes, “including low-flush toilets, a natural air filtration system that draws warm or cold air out of the room to improve circulation,” and the use of natural lighting. “It’s pretty cool knowing that just by going about our normal routines, we are making less of a footprint and conserving energy.”

Increasing green literacy

Next Generation Science Standards, a new multistate effort to standardize science curriculum across the country, now includes understanding global climate.

“These standards have been adopted by 10 states so far, and the number continues to grow,” says Minda Berbeco, PhD, programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that worked with the federal government to help create the Green Ribbon School awards.

Under the standards, Berbeco says, “starting in kindergarten, students will learn about climate and weather,” and in higher grades, they’ll study how individual organisms, like one specific species of birds, are being affected by global climate changes. 

Practicing hands-on environmental stewardship

Another way schools have taken steps to become more green is by having students participate in community projects that help the environment, Seydel explains.

For example, eighth-graders at Evergreen Community Charter School in Asheville, North Carolina, went into the community to study water patterns and land erosion, rather than just read about it in class. Then they worked with a local landscaper to plant vegetation to help prevent a hill near a playground from eroding.

“This type of hands-on learning helps students gain a deeper understanding of [what is being taught],” Berbeco notes.

Planting organic food

Improving students’ health is another aspect of being green, according to the Green Ribbon Schools standards. Many schools across the country have planted organic food gardens to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables available for school lunches, Seydel explains.

For instance, she notes that at Pine Jog Elementary School in West Palm Beach, Florida, “each student participates in gardening and planting activities.” Under teachers’ supervision, students cultivate strawberries, peppers, carrots and broccoli. Some of the produce is served to the kids at lunch, and the rest is sold in the community to help offset the costs of the garden.