Elms Elementary School in Jackson, which is in Ocean County, has been named a “Green Ribbon” school by the U.S. Department of Education — one of only 27 districts nationwide and the only school in New Jersey to receive the honor.

The Green Ribbon Schools awards recognize innovative efforts to address the three pillars of the program: reducing environmental impact and utility costs, improving health and wellness and ensuring effective sustainability education.

“This year’s U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools honorees have raised the bar for sustainability, healthy and safe school environments and hands-on learning experiences that connect students of all ages to the world around them,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.

School representatives will be honored in July in a ceremony in Washington, D.C.

“I could not think of an initiative that is more important than teaching our kids about sustainability efforts, recycling and the challenges we face as a society with climate change,’’ said Elms Principal Michael Burgos. “The reality is our students are our leaders of tomorrow, and I am so proud of the leadership our student Green Team and the entire school has exhibited in this area.”

The Elms Green Team is led by teachers Shaina Brenner, Sheryl Konopack and Jessica Fioretti, Assistant Principal Shawn Levinson and Burgos and is assisted at the district level by District Energy Education Specialist John Blair. Blair manages the district’s energy program, which has increased energy savings through progressive monitoring, education, strategic planning, energy auditing and energy savings improvement program participation.

“The efforts of the Elms Green Team and the students and staff at Elms have done a tremendous job of leading by example,’’ said Superintendent of Schools Nicole Pormilli. “Their energy, commitment and enthusiasm for sustainability and environmental responsibility can be felt throughout the school and is truly a model of excellence.’’

Pormilli said she is particularly proud that Elms is the second school in the district to earn this distinction, due in no small part to a commitment at the district level to responsible energy and sustainability. Last year, the Switlik Elementary School earned the same award.

“We have found great success and satisfaction in creating a culture of responsibility and accountability districtwide that places the health of our planet at the forefront of our efforts,’’ she said. “Our staff has found so many innovative ways to educate and encourage students and the students just leap at every opportunity to embrace these initiatives. It is truly inspiring.’’

On-site Aquaponics System

Among the many features that earned Elms the honor is an on-site aquaponics system, which engages students in learning about sustainable farming practices and a balanced ecosystem. Lessons in sustainability and environmental challenges focus on water conservation, plastic accumulation in oceans, pollinator declines, beach erosion, renewable transportation alternatives, invasive species’ impacts on wildlife and global access to clean water. Students participate in Trout in the Classroom, raising eggs and releasing the fingerlings. All grade levels travel on local nature-based field trips, including Cattus Island, Manasquan Reservoir, Jackson Forest Resource Education Center and Jenkinson’s Aquarium.

In the school courtyard, rain barrels irrigate the sensory garden and refill the 500-gallon aquaponics system. Students participate in recycling programs, such as Crayola ColorCycle, Trex plastic recycling, and on-site composting, and contribute to a food share table and a local food pantry to reduce waste.

“Watching students and staff engage, care and want to make a change in our environment truly gives me hope for the future,” Burgos said. “I’m so proud of our school, and I am very grateful for this coveted recognition.”

Application Package Details Efforts

In its application package, Elms Elementary School notes that it has a track record of being a good steward of the environment as it educates more than 640 general and special education students. “In recognition of the school’s efforts, Elms was awarded Silver Certification in 2018 from Sustainable Jersey for Schools, only one of 22 schools that have received this recognition. Elms Elementary relies on a variety of cost-cutting and energy efficient methods to operate its facility,” according to its application.

“As part of the district’s Green Strategic Plan and board-approved sustainability policies, major emphasis is placed on reducing the environmental impact on the surrounding community,” its application states. “The 130,000 square foot building obtained 40% of its renewable energy from the operation of its 980,000-kW solar field. Main lobby TV monitors advertise these incredible cost-savings. In addition to solar, the building runs off geothermal heat pumps. As a result, greenhouse gas emissions have been lowered by as much as 25% over the past four years.”

The district recently constructed a new transportation facility in the heart of the community to reduce the mileage of bus routes, save on fuel costs and reduce emissions. With a grant from the parent-teacher network, recycling efforts have increased with recycling bins with signage in classrooms, offices, and hallways. “After attending a presentation by the Ocean County Department of Solid Waste, student Green Team members gave a presentation to each classroom introducing the recycling initiative. The school also participates in Crayola’s ColorCycle Program and partnered with the Jackson Township Department of Public Works in a challenge to collect 500 pounds of plastic. As a result, the TREX company donated a high-performance composite bench for a 9-11 Memorial at the Jackson Township Municipal Building. Student eco-projects promoting the repurposing of materials and community recycling events have resulted in approximately 1,000 pounds of single stream recycling collected monthly,” its application states.

The school went on to note that Jackson Township is a community grounded in agriculture. Most students live on a farm, near a farm, or have a portion of their yard dedicated to growing plants or raising animals. “Elms provides healthy school meals featuring locally sourced foods and students stay active in the fields and courtyard garden that serves as an outdoor learning space. The media specialist provides students the opportunity to grow vegetables in the aquaponics system and sensory garden, supplementing with lessons about nutrition and environmental impacts,” its application states.

Elms’ K-5 curriculum engages students in a science curriculum aligned with learning standards for science centered around STEM principles and environmental design, the school notes. “Students conduct experiments and conclude every unit with a design challenge that incorporates engineering principles and introduce multiple green technologies. Sustainability and environmental challenges examine ideas like water conservation while students experience problems like collecting enough rainwater to meet the needs of an agricultural business. Students also create solutions to decrease plastic accumulation in oceans, increase pollinator populations, save beaches from erosion, test renewable transportation alternatives, reduce impacts by invasive species on wildlife, or increase access to clean water globally,” according to the application.

A Track Record of Success

In 2019, Elms received a School Leader Award from the New Jersey School Boards Association for its elementary science curriculum, making it one of four school districts recognized in the state for successfully creating and implementing an innovative program.

Last year, as part of the Sustainable Jersey for Schools program, the district earned a $1.1 million grant from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to purchase two electric-powered garbage trucks that were sorely needed. The district also implemented a $27 million energy savings improvement project, replacing and improving inefficient building mechanicals and adding energy-saving tools. The projects were funded solely by energy savings.

The school also engages in a number of other green initiatives that you can read about in detail in its application.

For more information and insight into the environmental education efforts at Elms Elementary School, watch its Green Ribbon school video.

Across the country, 27 schools, five districts and four postsecondary institutions were honored for their innovative efforts to reduce environmental impact and utility costs, improve health and wellness and ensure effective sustainability education.

The honorees were named from a pool of candidates nominated by 19 states. Here is a list of all selected schools, districts, colleges and universities, as well as their nomination packages – and here is a report with highlights on the honorees.

You can also find resources to move toward the three pillars that are a hallmark of Green Ribbon schools.

Green Team from left: Assistant Principal Shawn Levinson, teachers Cheryl Konopak, Shaina Brenner and Jessica Fioretti and Principal Michael Burgos. The team is also assisted by District Energy Education Specialist John Blair, who is not pictured.
The Elms Elementary School Green Team in Jackson Township from left: Assistant Principal Shawn Levinson, teachers Cheryl Konopak, Shaina Brenner and Jessica Fioretti and Principal Michael Burgos. The team is also assisted by District Energy Education Specialist John Blair, who is not pictured.