At Green Schools National Network, we want to expand our focus on green justice education. We want to redefine and shift the levers of power to those who are often left out of the conversation when we talk about green, equitable, and sustainable schools. For this year’s GivingTuesday, we are raising funds to strengthen and expand Green Ambassador programs at three Title I schools, and document that curriculum so it can be replicated in other schools across the country. Read on to learn about our first featured school.

Pine Jog Elementary School is a K-5, Title I community elementary school in West Palm Beach, Florida. The school shares a 150-acre property with Florida Atlantic University’s Pine Jog Environmental Education Center. Pine Jog opened twelve years ago as the first public green school in Palm Beach County and the first to be awarded LEED Gold Certified School in the state of Florida. Since then, their administration, teachers, staff, students, parents, and community have worked tirelessly to define, live, and teach in a “green” culture.

Pine Jog’s mission is to “develop a community of environmentally conscious learners who value and respect themselves, others, and the world we share.” We asked Tarachell Thomas, principal of Pine Jog Elementary School, a few questions about her school, their Green Ambassador program, and why she’s excited to bring green justice education into the program curriculum.

How will aspects of green justice enhance your Green Ambassador program and impact your students and community?

Our mantra at Pine Jog has always been “No Child Left Inside.” To meet this overarching goal, we continue to plan, develop, and use more outdoor Learning Labs on our campus. Prior to COVID-19, with assistance from Pine Jog Environmental Education Center, we created outdoor classroom spaces in the forest on the west side of our campus. These classroom learning areas are for our Forest Academy classes in grades K-2. They also serve as places for all our students to explore and become comfortable with the forest environment. 

All grade levels at Pine Jog assist with the upkeep and maintenance of our many outdoor Learning Lab areas. Our fourth-grade classes have taken on the brook and butterfly garden. They were outside weekly trimming bushes, clearing out pine needles, and picking up trash in this space. They have created a plan for plants that need to be replaced and plants they would like to see added to our butterfly garden to attract more butterfly species. 

Our TeamWork USA group, which consists of students from third through fifth grade, took over one of our ground gardens to plant a Three Sisters Garden. The group planted seeds, maintained the plot, and observed the growth of corn, beans, and squash. This garden symbolized the “teamwork” theme of working together and helping each other flourish. The students raised ladybugs from larva to adult and then released their new friends into the garden. The students learned about the ladybug lifecycle and the importance of ladybugs in gardening to keep aphids under control and help in pollination. When all the plants were grown, students took home their produce to share with their families. They were also able to teach their families about the growing process. TeamWork USA built a bee bath near this garden with the purpose of attracting bees to help with pollination and provide them a much-needed drink. Bees need a water source and the students examined different reasons why and learned to empathize a little more with the sometimes vilified bees. Students collected large rocks around campus and added decorative pebbles to a repurposed birdbath to create a source of water that would not accidentally drown the bees. 

Kindergarten, first grade, and second grade implemented a Forest Academy. The purpose of the academy is to provide educational experiences outdoors whenever possible. With help from Pine Jog Environmental Education Center, new outdoor classroom spaces were created for exclusive use by the Forest Academy classrooms. These spaces have sit-upon logs, outdoor carpet squares, binoculars, tweezers, magnifying lenses, and other nature observation tools. The spaces are tucked under the pines deep within the Pine Jog Forest. Integrated lessons help to teach students about the forest habitat and teach responsibility and respect for our environment.

So, in short, the program will help us to take all our current efforts to the next level. The program will assist us in adjusting to the new normal brought about by COVID-19. Just as companies around the country are revisiting the way they are communicating, working with, teaching, and reaching their markets, it’s my hope that this program will help us continue our efforts to successfully interact with the community while reducing our carbon footprint and increasing our sustainability efforts.

What excites you about this opportunity to bring healthy, equitable, and sustainable initiatives to life for your students?

It helps the Earth! It helps our school earn money to further our sustainability efforts. It teaches responsibility and the need to care for the Earth. It helps create a sense of charity in our community.

Given the impacts of climate change on people and our planet, why are green, healthy initiatives important for students? How do they benefit from participating in these types of programs?

Richard Louv stated, “Nature-deficit disorder is a term I use to describe the human costs of alienation from nature. Among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.” Our goal at Pine Jog is to raise a generation of students who conserve, reuse, and recycle. From this, they learn to nurture, care for, and preserve our planet, as well as those who inhabit it.

What’s one thing you want “graduates” of your Green Ambassador program to take with them as they go forward in their communities?

Students like Meredith Waldo inspire the dedicated Green Team of teachers at Pine Jog to continue transforming their school into a model campus for sustainability. As a member of the Teamwork USA Society during her last year at Pine Jog, Meredith helped spearhead the creation of a new club that’s focused on preserving and protecting the Everglades. Meredith is now in middle school, but her passion for the project spawned a legacy. Just like Meredith, we want our children to grow up green and to blossom into agents of change.

 Why are you excited to be a part of this campaign?

The new Everglades Club is one of many extracurricular programs at Pine Jog that revolve around sustainability and environmental education. And during the regular school day, Pine Jog’s fine arts program, guidance program, science club, and media technology program all work to interweave environmental stewardship into the curricula. One of our goals is to produce and promote lifelong environmental stewards. A part of this is achieved by teaching students about sustainability, caring for the environment and themselves, and showing students how to nurture their love and desire to care for the environment. But Pine Jog is ready to do more. I’m excited to be part of a campaign that will lead our school in that direction.