A great day in my job is when I get to visit a school and meet with students and teachers. This year, I had a chance to meet with some enthusiastic middle school students while visiting St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes Middle School (SSSAS) located in Alexandria, Virginia. SSSAS is a 2016 U. S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School (ED-GRS). The SSSAS middle school is part of a complex of Episcopalian co-ed schools that educate from junior kindergarten through 12th grade.
Each year at SSSAS, a group of students, under teacher supervision, visit the Chesapeake Bay to install six osprey stands that they have designed and built. The students shared their experiences about the trip to the Chesapeake Bay and how much they enjoyed kayaking and observing nature. One student noted that it was a great experience because it was fun while being educational. These trips to the Chesapeake Bay are effective and dynamic ways to teach environmental and sustainability education at SSSAS.
Public and private schools honored with the ED-GRS award demonstrate that their practices address key areas referred to as the three “Pillars.” These Pillars include: 1) reducing environmental impact and costs; 2) improving health and wellness; and 3) teaching effective environmental and sustainability education. In 2016, ED-GRS honored 47 schools, 15 districts, and 11 post-secondary institutions for their innovative practices in these areas.
A conscientious faculty and a strong emphasis on sustainability are foundational to the school’s ED-GRS status and commitment to the three Pillars. The changes to school practices and curriculum are highly teacher-driven. For example, the language arts teachers developed units on recycling to expand environmental education beyond the “science class silo.” Students compare renewable energy sources to traditional energy sources in laboratory experiments with wind and solar energy; they harness technology to model life in sustainable cities; and they conduct horticultural experiments in the school’s greenhouse. Students research the effects of past environmental disasters, as well as the harm to natural resources and populations in procuring and manufacturing for developed nations.
Another way SSSAS seeks to increase environmental awareness is through a digital energy dashboard, which displays a polar bear that changes its facial expression and actions based on energy usage. The polar bear allows students to visualize the environmental impact of their energy usage. Over eight years, the middle school has addressed energy efficiency in a focused series of building performance projects, which has led to a 41 percent reduction in annual electricity consumption. SSSAS shares the energy dashboard via the school’s website to involve the entire community in reducing energy usage and cutting costs.
In the school cafeteria there is an effort to go trayless to reduce environmental impact, and a salad bar with a variety of produce to entice students to eat healthy meals. A thoughtful physical education program allows students five hours each week of sports and recreational activities which include proper conditioning, balanced nutrition, and good sportsmanship. Discussion and counseling groups are positioned to maintain healthy student mindsets as well.
The school’s director of environmental stewardship coordinates long- and short-term sustainability pursuits with the faculty, administrators, dining, transportation, and facilities staff on the 23-member Environmental Stewardship Committee. The director advises on strategic plan initiatives, capital improvements, and community-based initiatives, as well as family education at parent-teacher association events.
SSSAS evidences a commitment to the three Pillars in a number of exciting and engaging ways and I was glad to see it first-hand. At the same time, SSSAS is only one of a number of ED-GRS honorees. To learn about other honorees, visit the ED-GRS website, view them on a map, and read highlights on each of the honorees.
Ashley Gardner is Management and Program Analyst in the Office of Non-Public Education at the U.S. Department of Education and a member of the ED-GRS federal review team.