Going Green

A Florida principal describes his green elementary school and provides tips others can use to “go green.”
By Fred Barch
Principal, September/October 2013
Web Resources

Imagine a school where children tend schoolyard gardens, do homework by a waterfall and meandering stream, conduct outdoor science investigations, or just read in a shady area under a tree. A school that has computer touch screens throughout hallways so students can monitor electric energy usage, solar energy production, and water usage/savings—all displayed graphically. These scenes may not seem possible in today’s highly stressed public schools, but they’re the reality at Pine Jog Elementary School in West Palm Beach, Florida. Pine Jog is both a Title I school that serves a high-poverty population and a “green school” that earned a coveted national prize for its innovative approach to teaching and learning with the environment in mind.

In this era of tight budgets and high-stakes standardized testing, going green may seem like a luxury few school districts can afford. But green schools offer both financial and educational benefits. According to “Greening America’s Schools: Costs and Benefits,” a national review of 30 green schools, “green schools cost less than 2% more than conventional schools … but provide financial benefits that are 20 times as large.” And the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities report, “Green Schools as High Performance Learning Facilities,” states that green schools save $100,000 per year, on average. Green school facilities also increase student performance, reduce absenteeism, and can add between 3 to 5 percentage points to students’ standardized test scores, according to the NCER report. So what is a green school, why did Pine Jog Elementary go green, and how can it serve as model for other schools?

What Is a Green School?
Any school that has made a commitment to create a healthier environment, while incorporating strategies to help reduce the impact on our environment, can be considered a green school.

Many new school buildings are being constructed to meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification standards. It is my belief that a green school culture and curriculum must be developed in order to maximize the benefits of a LEED school building. But LEED certification is not necessary for green education. You will need, however, supporters who have a high regard for the environment.

Pine Jog Elementary School, which is co-located on a 150-acre site with Pine Jog Environmental Center, a division of Florida Atlantic University (FAU), was built to LEED Gold Standards in 2008. The innovative project is the result of a partnership that formed when the environmental center was badly damaged by a hurricane and the school district needed to build a new school. The environmental center leased the school district the land for $1; in exchange, the district rebuilt the environmental center and constructed a building for FAU. All of the buildings are located on about 15 acres, and the remaining 135 acres are natural Florida pinelands.

In 2008, I was named principal of this unique elementary school, with the ambitious goal of creating a school culture that would become a national model for the green schools movement. I didn’t want this school to just be green, I wanted it to be the greenest in the country.

There are numerous signs throughout the campus that describe the green features. For example, our campus includes a 4,000-plant hydroponic system, as well as nine raised-bed gardens, a Kinder-Garden dedicated to our kindergarten students, a peach orchard, an aquaponics system that students and staff use to raise tilapia (the system’s wastewater is used to fertilize plants), a bamboo walk that focuses on sustainability, and a beehive to help pollinate our plants. Our human sundial allows students to calculate the current time based on the location of the sun and the shadow of their body.

Getting Started
My first year as principal was both the most challenging and the most rewarding. The school’s staff was new and had transferred from approximately 35 different elementary schools, each with its own school culture. We opened our doors to 535 students (we now serve over 900), most of whom transferred from two neighboring schools. Seventy-four percent of Pine Jog’s students are in the poverty range; 41 percent are Hispanic, 31 percent black, 20 percent white, 4 percent multiracial, 3 percent Asian, and 1 percent Indian.

I wanted to start a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) program with an environmental twist that would provide as many hands-on opportunities for students as possible. An important component of our green culture is engaging students with meaningful outdoor education opportunities—we incorporate reading, writing, science, and math into outdoor activities, the benefits of which are myriad.

Students both love and learn well from these experiences while gaining an appreciation for the outdoors. Outdoor, experiential learning provides a respite from the world of electronics that patiently awaits most students at home. And, according to a study conducted by the American Institutes for Research, outdoor education has a positive impact on children’s behavior and test scores. Since its inception, Pine Jog has been an A-rated school while showing significant student gains in math, writing, reading, and science.

Green Theming
The school building is LEED-certified, but I also wanted our new school to be green to its core. So from the beginning, I weaved the green theme throughout all newsletters, meetings, and professional development opportunities— everything had a green twist.

Green tips and green ideas, as well as suggestions from staff on how to be green, were clearly listed on meeting agendas. I made it known that together, we would build this school into a national model and challenged my staff, PTA, and school advisory committee to come up with additional ways to be green. Most everyone seemed to embrace the concept, perhaps because it just makes good sense. In most cases, being green saves money while also saving the environment— who can argue with that?

We began to green theme all of our events. We have two large green fundraising events each year, in thefall and spring, organized by our PTA. The fall festival, called the Enchanted Forest, includes fun family activities such as a hay ride, a haunted house, and our famous candle-lit (using LED candles) trail tour. During the tour, “animals” (teachers dressed as native animals) come to life and talk to students about their life in the forest. The spring Strawberry Festival is a family celebration of the Florida harvest season, specifically the annual harvest of the school’s 4,000-plant hydroponic system. Our students have many examples of healthy eating on campus, and our 1,500 strawberry plants help to produce the strawberries for this annual event.

Every year, we try to add new educational components to our campus, all of which encourage outdoor learning as much as possible.

Greening Your Own School
Start by bringing together a group of dedicated staff to form a green team. Challenge the team to create initial goals that are easily obtainable so that they can be celebrated, and then recognize those who make the extra effort. You should also promote the idea to school board members, the PTA, and to students. Here are a few project ideas.

Book study. Engage and educate staff with a book study. Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv, explains the importance of getting children outside to save them from “nature deficit disorder.” The book is eyeopening, easy to understand, and relevant. Organized in seven parts, it is easy to divide among grade levels. At each book study meeting, a different grade level can present its chapter to the rest of the faculty, which helps to engage the entire staff as well as have a lasting effect on school culture.

Recycling. At Pine Jog, we recycle almost everything. While this is not a moneymaker—in some cases we actually pay to recycle materials—it shows dedication to the cause. Each grade level manages a portion of our recycling program. And because I have experienced some pushback from custodians who don’t want to empty recycle bins, students move recyclables from their classrooms to large receptacles located in the center of hallways. Over 90 percent of classroom waste is recyclable so there is very little trash left for custodians.

Consider having a recycling competition. Encourage grade levels to take on portions of the recycling challenge, then champion all efforts and provide rewards or incentives.

Cleaning. On a recent trip to Japan, I had the opportunity to visit numerous schools and classrooms. What most impressed me was that all students clean their classrooms at the end of the day, a practice that I implemented at Pine Jog this year. So as not to infringe on classroom time, I asked teachers to dedicate the final four minutes of class time to teaching the responsibility of taking care of the classroom and having students clean the room.

Electives. Music, art, physical education, and other electives are important to include and can help to further develop your green culture. Our art teacher is dedicated to creating artwork from items that would normally make their way to the trash bin. Our music teacher has a recycled-instrument program, and our chorus sings green-themed songs. Our drama club has developed a program called ACTively Green—all of the program’s sets, costumes, and performance themes are green. Parents and community members are invited to Pine Jog’s annual “Night of the Arts” program, which features student artwork and drama and chorus performances.

Gardening. Get your students outside to learn, integrating math and science into a gardening program. Some of our most challenging students have become student leaders when actively engaged in meaningful outdoor activities. Gardening also helps to encourage healthy eating because students will eat their vegetables when they grow them.

STEM/STEAM curricula. Hold an annual STEM or STEAM night featuring hands-on activities that celebrate the green ethos and engage students and their parents. We invite our local science museum and other community partners to display at and attend this event.

A science and math fair will also encourage scientific investigation by students and strengthen the STEM program at your school. At Pine Jog, all students must complete an individual science or math project in grades 3 through 5, and all K-2 students complete class projects. We invite parents to this event to showcase projects.

Greening our schools is a win-win situation for everyone involved. We are charged with providing the best environment for future generations, and as instructional leaders, we can be a catalyst for change. By recognizing the small accomplishments of students and staff, we can encourage them to be more environmentally sensitive.

Fred Barch is principal of Pine Jog Elementary School in West Palm Beach,Florida.


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