ED Team Visits Green Ribbon Honorees in Oregon and Washington

Catlin Gabel

On the West Coast portion of the ‘Education Built to Last’ Facilities Best Practices Tour, ED officials visited the Catlin Gabel School, in Portland, Ore., where the garden is curricular focus of middle school classes and a school-wide garden club. Each year, students have a sustainability theme woven into their curriculum.

When my colleague, Andrea Falken, director of the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS), asked me to accompany her on site visits to honored schools in Oregon and Washington, I quickly agreed. As part of the Education Built to Last Facilities Best Practices Tour, the plan was to make brief visits over three days to about a dozen schools across the Pacific Northwest, recognizing them for their outstanding environmental impact, health, and education and bringing more attention to their strategies, so that other schools might do more of the same.

As a long-time environmentalist, I was eager to learn more about how top-notch K-12 educators are helping students understand the perils that face our planet. How do these educators get the message across without scaring the kids? Do the students understand the root causes of the problems and their personal role in solving them? What books, films, experiments, and lessons are most useful? How do the best schools link environmental education with more traditional subjects such as social studies, science and math?

What I discovered in Oregon and Washington, however, surprised me. The questions that I thought were most important were, indeed, important, but it turned out they were secondary to a far more vital issue: what is the quality of leadership at each school?

“ED-GRS sites aren’t innately well-resourced,” says Falken. “But they’re resourceful.” What makes the difference? In a word: leadership. More specifically, some leaders seem to have an ability to turn the most modest means and activities — say, a patch of dirt in a parking lot, or the need to clean up after lunch — into engaging, meaningful, stimulating learning opportunities.

Take, for example, Amy Kleiner, the remarkable principal of ED-GRS honoree Sunnyside Elementary School, in Portland, Ore. “One of our challenges is the steady gentrification of the neighborhood around us,” Kleiner told us during our visit. “Diversity is important in nature, and it is also important in school, so we have to work hard to overcome the obstacles.” One way Kleiner and her team are overcoming these challenges is by making use of every square foot of her school’s grounds to advance understanding about critical environmental issues.

A typical boxy urban school is surrounded by medians that would typically feature some type of ground cover. At Sunnyside, however, those strips of land have been transformed into a perennial sensory garden, a pollinator garden, a grain garden, and a native plant garden. Each grade is responsible for overseeing a garden, under the coordination of a three-person sustainability team. The students learn by working with a water cistern, a chicken coop, several rain barrels, and a lunchtime recycling program that teaches students what they can do at home to help. “We are not going to have our students’ future limited by where they live and where they go to school,” Kleiner says. “So we work hard to give students a more complete exposure to nature and environmental science. It’s really a team effort.”

We saw the same commitment to excellence in reducing environmental impact, improving health and wellness, and teaching effective environmental education at every other school we visited. At Gladstone High School, in Gladstone, Ore., administrators assisted in the creation of a Green School Club that made waves by conducting scientifically rigorous energy audits of the school facilities, leading to significant reductions in energy costs. When local voters passed a bond measure to fund school construction, “It was just natural that we’d look to build facilities that were efficient, affordable, and environmentally sustainable,” says Gladstone Schools Superintendent Bob Stewart. The result: the school added 13 percent more square footage, while simultaneously reducing overall electrical consumption by nine percent and natural gas consumption by three percent. “The students really led the way,” Stewart says.  Gladstone’s latest addition, an old supermarket turned early learning center, complete with health clinic, counseling services, and blended special education pre-K, is also trailblazing toward social, economic, and environmental sustainability. “The president’s State of the Union address struck home because I thought, ‘Wow, that’s what we’re doing,’ ” Stewart says.

The following day, we saw other great leaders empowering students at Sacajawea Elementary School, in Vancouver, Wash.  At Sacajawea, 15 percent of the students are active participants in the Green Team, which hosts school clean up days, cultivates native plants, and advocates for sustainable practices in the school and community. The Green Team actively monitors the health of local natural ecosystems, tracks the school’s energy usage, and oversees efforts to protect the watershed, culminating in their annual attendance at the Watershed Congress. We saw kids fishing through tubs of water to identify macroinvertebrates. In addition, the school has one heck of a media studio, where students produce a daily – live – news show, under the watchful eye of fifth grade teacher Mr. Jeff Lee.  We were treated to a special live Green Ribbon edition of the morning news!

At Tahoma High School, in Covington, Wash., students became financial rainmakers, literally. Student environmental leaders won an $80,000 grant to implement storm water management strategies that prevent toxic rainwater from parking lots from polluting streams and waterways used by salmon — an essential part of the local culture and economy. “It was a great experience,” one of the student leaders told us, noting that she still visits the high school regularly even though she is now attending a nearby college. “I want to help the younger students understand what we did, and what they can do,” she said.

As I travelled back to Washington, D.C., on a red-eye flight after our visits, I could not stop thinking about these students, the others like them whom we met, and the learning environments that their teachers and administrators had worked so hard to create. It brought home a powerful reality: great leaders don’t wait for the right moment or say they can’t without trying. Instead, they roll up their sleeves and do what they can, where they are, with what they have. And, in the process, they provide a lesson for us all.

Hal Plotkin is the senior policy advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary

See a complete list of schools visited on the tour.