Moving Sustainability Forward in the Mountain State

Note: U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) recognizes schools, districts and postsecondary institutions that are 1) reducing environmental impact and costs; 2) improving health and wellness; and 3) teaching environmental education. To share innovative practices and widely-available resources in these three ‘Pillars,’ the Department conducts an annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour of honorees. Two non-profit organization school sustainability leaders write about the schools and district honorees visited on the tour in West Virginia.

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At Eastwood Elementary, in Morgantown, West Virginia, enhanced wall and roof insulation and a geothermal heating and cooling system allow the school to use about 25 percent less energy than a conventional one of the same size. (Photo courtesy of Eastwood Elementary)

Here in West Virginia, we were excited to highlight our U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School (ED-GRS) honorees during the second annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour. West Virginia was a fitting place to kick off the 2014 tour because, when the ED-GRS program was announced a few years ago, non-profit organizations like ours were quick to offer support to our state education agency.

Before 2011, many organizations were holding green schools workshops and events that helped participants develop plans to become more sustainable. But ED-GRS has provided a common goal for those engaged in the sustainable schools movement, and a new direction for our conversation on healthy schools and high-achieving students.

What has emerged is West Virginia Sustainable Schools (WVSS) initiative, which we use to recruit applicants for the national award. Led by the West Virginia Department of Education, WVSS has become a conduit through which agencies and organizations channel sustainability programming in curriculum, health and wellness, and facilities to schools.

ED-GRS has helped what was once a small but deeply-rooted sustainability community to grow less isolated, and more effective. Now we are using a few exemplary schools to inspire other schools to expand their efforts.

For this reason, it was a particular pleasure to have federal, state and local visitors tour our ED-GRS honorees to learn about innovative, hands-on curricula, community partnerships, and sustainability practices that advance learning, health and cost savings.

From pulling invasive garlic mustard weed to monitoring water quality in a local stream, Petersburg Elementary School, our first stop, partners with field experts to effectively teach science and stewardship while conserving Appalachia’s precious land.

Later, at Wyoming County Career and Technical Center, in the heart of coal country, students, school leaders, and community partners led guests through an energy efficient modular home, a 8.4 kW solar array, a biodiesel processor, and a recycling trailer, all student-built in sustainable career pathways.

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Cameron Middle-High School in Cameron, West Virginia. Both the school and Marshall County, a District Sustainability Awardee, have received U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools accolades. (Photo courtesy of Cameron Middle-High School)

In Marshall County Schools, we toured Hilltop Elementary and Cameron Middle-High School. Marshall County has made sustainable building practices and learning a priority from early learning to agricultural technology programs, saving the district over $5 million in 10 years. From low-impact buses to green cleaning, recycling to school gardens, these schools are teaching environmental concepts, along with entrepreneurial and civic skills, and wellness practices, in healthy, safe, lower utility-cost facilities.

Finally, visitors toured Eastwood Elementary in Morgantown, where every attention was given to reducing environmental impact and improving health in the construction of the new facility, from its geothermal heating and cooling system to expansive daylighting to safe and healthy building materials.

Where we once felt we were facing an insurmountable task – striving for increased health and a sustainable future for the children of our state – we now feel a new sense of purpose and momentum. A sustainably literate, college- and career-ready, and civically-engaged generation of West Virginians is on the rise. Striving toward the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools’ three Pillars is now our unifying Mountain State goal.

Vicki Fenwick-Judy is Director of the Appalachian Program at The Mountain Institute. Mark Swiger is a USGBC Center for Green Schools’ Chapter Committees National Chair.