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Natural Awakenings Central New Jersey

Schools Go Green

Homework, Lunch, Buses Get an Eco-Makeover

With paperless homework, bookless backpacks, zero waste lunches, plastic-free filtered water and classrooms without walls, today’s parents and teachers are bringing eco-friendly ways to schools and giving students an early appreciation of the importance of environmental health.
Going green goes both ways—home to school and school to home. Alysia Reiner, an actress and eco-advocate from New York’s Harlem neighborhood, became involved with the Bank Street School for Children when her daughter enrolled at age 3. “I’m green at home, so in my mind her school had to be green, too. With no programs in place, I made suggestions, which got me elected co-chair of the green committee,” says Reiner, with a smile.

“Today, we have a school-wide composting program serving 1,500 students that has reduced previous levels of food waste by 75 percent. To raise awareness and funds to support it, we sold reusable snack sacks, stainless steel water bottles and home composting bags.” An innovative chef focuses on organic foods with vegetarian options for school lunches. The next step is a rooftop garden.

When Sheila Hageman, an author, teacher and public speaker living in Milford, Connecticut, first read the memo requesting garbage-free lunches for her three children at the New England School-Montessori, she couldn’t imagine packing food without the use of plastic wrap, sandwich bags or paper napkins, but, “Now, it’s no big deal,” she says. “I use glass containers and cloth napkins. The kids eat better quality food. It costs less, too, because prepackaged snacks are out.” She notes that the governing rule is one protein, one fruit and one vegetable. The school even has a natural composter—a class guinea pig that loves to eat leftover veggies.

Students often bring the first of their homegrown vegetables each season for show and tell in the classroom, where they normally eat lunch. It’s a neat way to avoid mass-produced food; the school has no cafeteria. “A little change becomes part of a lifestyle,” remarks Hageman.

Oxbridge Academy of the Palm Beaches, for grades nine through 12, in West Palm Beach, Florida, provides a near-paperless experience for students, all of which are issued computers. Homework is assigned, completed, graded and returned; tests are given and graded; report cards are sent and textbooks studied—all online.

“Technology has created an atmosphere of modern education,” observes Teresa Thornton, Ph.D., the science teacher who spearheaded many of the school’s green initiatives. “We buy one set of print books, since not all students learn the same way. But e-books can be easily updated electronically each year, saving the educational costs of outdated materials and financial costs of replacement. By the end of the year, they know how to use PowerPoint, Excel, Word and statistics programs to organize and analyze information.”

In Pittsburgh, Chatham University follows the example of eco-pioneer and Silent Spring author Rachel Carson, a class of 1929 alumna, to preserve, maintain and restore nature. With the goal to be carbon neutral by 2025, sustainability becomes part of every decision. The Chatham Eastside facility, located in a revitalization area, reclaimed a former manufacturing complex.

“We are the first school in Pennsylvania to have a solar hot water system,” says Mary Whitney, the school’s sustainability coordinator. “Bottled water was banned in 2011 and filtered water stations provide free refills for stainless steel bottles. The rent-a-bike program is especially popular with international students.” The two campus Zipcars, a Honda Insight and Scion xD, shared by students, can be reserved for a fee. Students also ride free on public transportation.

In Tennessee, Ivy Academy Chattanooga strives to integrate nature into every class. “In geometry, for example, students use a protractor to measure the angle of leaves or the photo of a flower for a mapping exercise,” says Executive Director Angie Markum. “Because we are located next to 4,000 acres of forest, we can often teach classes outdoors. We also work with the region’s forestry division to treat diseased hemlocks and monitor growth, then upload the information to the Smithsonian.” Classes tend to be linked together. Daily hikes improve fitness and emphasize how alternative means of travel reduce the harmful impacts of burning fossil fuels. To get to school, many students walk while several teachers run up to 10 miles.

Also in Chattanooga, at the Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy, students gain the knowledge and experience to extend the difference they make beyond greening their school. Anne Vilen, a designer for expeditionary learning schools like Donaldson, says, “It’s empowering for students to discover they can make a real impact.”

Pre-K to College Eco-Lessons

  • San Francisco was the first city in the nation to put green bins in school cafeterias. Currently, more than 85 percent of its schools participate in SF Environment’s Food to Flowers! lunchroom composting program. Leftover food and empty milk cartons are turned into compost, and then sold to area farmers. Schools can receive free compost for their own gardens.
  • The Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, conducts a PowerSave Schools Program that teaches kids how to conduct energy audits at school and home. Participating schools typically realize 5 to 15 percent reductions in energy costs, and students learn math and science skills.
  • The National Wildlife Federation shows K–12 students how they can actively support nature by establishing schoolyard wildlife habitats. Pupils evaluate the environment, make a plan and then implement it. They can grow food and create shelter for wildlife such as bird feeders and baths and observe the results. A habitat can be as small as 20 square feet or as large as students are able to maintain.
  • Schools should be as clean as possible to prevent the spreading of germs, but traditional cleaning agents contain harmful chemicals. Makers of the ZONOsanitech machine attest that it kills nearly all common bacteria and viruses and meets U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards. Using super oxygen (ozone) and less than eight ounces of water per day, the ZONO can clean and sanitize most types of school furniture and materials within 30 minutes, while drawing less than three cents worth of electricity.
  • “Studies show that 70 percent of ambient air pollution comes from diesel emissions alone,” says Ron Halley, vice president of fleet and facilities at Student Transportation of America (STA), of Wall, New Jersey, with offices in America and Canada. “STA will have a fleet of more than 1,000 alternative-fueled school buses operating in California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Texas this coming school year.” Propane-powered buses emit virtually no particulate matter. STA estimates a savings of more than $2,600 per year for each bus with the use of propane; it historically costs 30 percent less than diesel fuel. Omaha, Nebraska public schools have 435 propane-fueled buses, so the fuel and maintenance savings could exceed a million dollars annually. “Omaha Public Schools’ buses will also reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2.3 million pounds a year,” says Halley.
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