The U.S. Department of Education last week awarded two New Jersey schools with the prestigious federal Green Ribbon award for promoting and achieving smart environmental, health and wellness programs.

Ocean County’s Switlik Elementary School in Jackson, and Camden County’s Winslow Township Middle School in Atco, are among the 27 schools, districts or institutions of higher education in the U.S. that earned the national recognition this year.

Pursuing eco-friendly methods not only makes schools healthier, but the winning schools have found that it also promotes a culture of responsibility and accountability.

Principals in each of the schools attributed their success to the ingenuity and collaboration of their teachers, staff, students and the backing of their school boards, superintendents and parents in realizing their visions for healthier and more environmentally sound schools.

The winners are scheduled to be invited to a fall celebration ceremony in Washington, D.C.  National school officials encourage other Garden State schools to learn about the contest-winning entries and adopt environmentally friendly mechanisms and sustainability lessons for their own use.

(Top) Starting in kindergarten, students learn about the life cycle of a chicken by observing a classroom incubation chamber for eggs, and the students look forward to holding the chicks once hatched. (Above) Switlik students get a visit from the “Energy Hog,”' part of a New Jersey Natural Gas campaign launched by the Alliance to Save Energy and the Ad Council. The Energy Hog makes learning about energy fun, while empowering children to make wise energy choices. (Note: Photos supplied by school, taken prior to COVID distancing guidelines).
(Top) Starting in kindergarten, students learn about the life cycle of a chicken by observing a classroom incubation chamber for eggs, and the students look forward to holding the chicks once hatched. (Above) Switlik students get a visit from the “Energy Hog,”’ part of a New Jersey Natural Gas campaign launched by the Alliance to Save Energy and the Ad Council. The Energy Hog makes learning about energy fun, while empowering children to make wise energy choices. (Note: Photos supplied by school, taken prior to the pandemic.)

Switlik Elementary School, Jackson  Switlik Principal Kathleen McKiernan affectionately refers to her school as “the building with character – inside and out.”

Switlik it the largest of six elementary schools in the Jackson School District with nearly 770 students, and it is the oldest, built in 1948.

None of that hindered Switlik from also earning Silver Certification through Sustainable Jersey for Schools, one of just 19 in the state. The school, which has housed thousands of students over the decades, is gleaming when you walk in, McKiernan said, because of continuous maintenance and pride.

The school created a “Green Team” five years ago and set goals that it wanted to accomplish. Today, it has a greenhouse, rain barrels, and forward-looking wellness programs.

“This is a wonderful building with wonderful people and I could not be more proud of them,” said McKiernan.

Switlik students, staff and administrators cooperated to find ways to care for the planet and each other by instituting behavior-based energy conservation, by reducing energy consumption, and making facility improvements, strongly supported by its school board and Superintendent Nicole Pormilli.

Their work resulted in decreasing energy consumption by 16% and saving $2.5 million over the past four years. The school has a green cleaning and purchasing policy, including its annually updated Integrated Pest Management Plan, which requires that all cleaning products be Green Seal certified. No pesticides are applied and water is used to remove wax from its floors instead of traditional chemical-laden wax stripping solutions.

Construction is conducted at night and the affected areas are immediately cleaned by staff to ensure minimal exposure to occupants. The staff also performs daily moisture inspections in all classrooms and unit ventilators are inspected regularly with filters changed every three months.

Switlik received a $10,000 Sustainable Jersey for Schools grant to construct a greenhouse and install two water bottle filling stations, saving 18,000 plastic water bottles to date.

Rather than outsource waste pickup, the school’s recycled materials are collected by a district truck weekly, and a separate truck collects solid waste twice a week. On average, the school recycles about 1,500 pounds monthly, including waste generated from after school and recreation activities. Switlk hosts several grade-level assemblies throughout the year to instruct students and staff on proper single stream recycling. It has recycled electronics, and in one school year alone, the school community collected more than 20 pounds of dry erase markers for the Crayola Colorcycle recycling program. Switlik teamed up with two other district schools and its township recycling department to collect 500 pounds of plastic bags and had the Trex company convert them into a park bench.

McKiernan pointed to the smart ways that teachers have melded green tactics into their lessons such as art teacher, Maria Martinez, who has her students collect recyclables and use them in projects. They upcycled wood chopped at a local karate school and designed artwork from the repurposed materials.

“It’s like a domino effect,” McKiernan said.

All Switlik students attend the Barnegat Bay Watershed Festival and participate in outdoor lessons in the school’s courtyard. Teachers take students on field trips that focus on the environment, including trips to Jenkinson’s Aquarium, Insectropolis (an interactive insect museum), and the Philadelphia Zoo. The school maintains safety data sheets in its main office for every product used as part of its compliance with New Jersey’s Right to Know regulations. Field trips and other activities took place prior to the pandemic.

To learn more about Switlik’s Green Ribbon Award, visit the school’s website to watch a video about it.

(Top) Winslow Township Middle School student are studying biodiversity and monitoring the ecology of the school’s pond and ecosystem. (Above) Students at the Winslow Township Middle School plant herbs and vegetables they started indoors from seeds in raised courtyard garden beds.
(Top) Winslow Township Middle School student are studying biodiversity and monitoring the ecology of the school’s pond and ecosystem.
(Above) Students at the Winslow Township Middle School plant herbs and vegetables they started indoors from seeds in raised courtyard garden beds.

Winslow Township Middle School, Atco  Dr. H. Major Poteat, the Winslow Township School District superintendent, created a vision for all the district schools to be energy efficient, for students to be cognizant of their environment and to learn how to take care of it.

“We took his lead and branched off in our own direction and became a sustainable school,” said Stella Nwanguna, middle school principal.

The Winslow school reached that level through environment-oriented programs and activities, green cleaning practices and purchasing, and an updated curriculum.

Winslow also greatly expanded its “Green Team” to 40 members with several subcommittees that meet regularly to discuss marketing to showcase their efforts to the community, explore and manage existing grants, oversee the school’s gardens and discuss ways to incorporate them into the curriculum.

The program began six years ago, when the school’s environmental STEM teacher, Ross Cruz, who also heads the building’s Green Team for outdoor classrooms, offered a class focused on sustainability. It was a hit, according to Nwanguna, laughingly admitting that at the time it was an idea “that we didn’t know if it was going to work or not.”

But the theme caught on and over the years the culture of the school of more than 740 students undoubtedly has turned green. The school earned the 2020 Sustainability Champion Award from the Sustainable Jersey for Schools program for earning the highest level of points by any middle school in New Jersey.

“The big push for the environmental STEM program is about creating change and dealing with and addressing” challenges, said Cruz, also a former Winslow Township School District Teacher of the Year. “We found that our students are really passionate about these ideas.”

He said the students have learned to question why things are being done, as well as the bureaucracy that can sometimes stand in the way of change and the ways that they can address it, while expanding their ideas.

One of Winslow’s focuses is sustainable agriculture, including soil and water health and food supply. Students designed soda bottle hydroponic systems to understand the basic concepts of hydroponics and look at alternative ways to repurpose trash. They grew a variety of crops in their hydroponics systems including basil, cilantro, parsley, mint, micro greens, kale, tomatoes, spinach, peppers and lettuce. The program’s goal is to help create the next generation of environmental scientists, engineers, and problem solvers by teaching lessons focused on raising awareness of local and global environmental issues and by challenging students to develop solutions to combat these challenges.

They do not mind getting dirty, either. Students and staff manually pull weeds and mulch instead of using herbicides. They use plant-based food waste from the cafeteria to make compost. Soil moisture and weather is monitored to determine when to water the plants, and they use water collected from one of their several rain barrels.

Jessica Glatz, graphics design teacher and chairwoman of the Green Team’ publicity committee, attributes the success to enthusiastic teachers and staff, who dove in to provide students with practical opportunities to get involved.

“I think it’s really important that students are seeing their own work displayed in the building,” Glatz said. “Their hands-on involvement gives them ownership over that and helps them develop and foster a love of the environment and nature to help solve some of the problems of today.”

The 1958 building had all of its hallway lights replaced with high-efficiency LED lighting, and its windows replaced with dual-glazed windows with built-in blinds to help regulate room temperature and energy usage. The school is partially operated with solar power panels on its roof, part of a district-wide initiative. In addition, Winslow’s exterior lighting has been replaced with LED lighting, resulting in an annual energy savings of nearly $56,000.

Food challenges based on the popular cooking show “Chopped” encourage students to create healthy plant-based dishes from the foods in the school garden. The recipes are shared with the students’  families to promote wholesome eating habits. Winslow is in the process of constructing a large greenhouse to introduce more students to the art and science of growing fruits, vegetables, and herbs, as well as topics related to nutritious eating, cooking, and nutrition for overall well-being.

The district also worked with the Sodexo food supplier to partner with eight local farms to deliver fresh, in-season produce to their school. Since 54% of its students qualify for free and reduced lunch, the school began serving breakfast after the homeroom bell to provide adequate nutrition so students could better focus on their studies throughout the day.

To read about the Winslow program, visit its website.

To learn more about U.S. Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Award program and see other winning entries from throughout nation, visit its program page.

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