Two Garden State schools, Cape May City Elementary School in Cape May and Readington Middle School in Hunterdon County, were honored as 2020 Green Ribbon Schools last spring. They were selected for the 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.

The schools were the only two in New Jersey so honored; nationally, 39 schools, 11 districts and five postsecondary institutions were recognized.

The Background of the Green Ribbon School Program  In 2011, key leaders from the Campaign for Environmental Literacy, the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Earth Day Network advised some 80 national and state-based nonprofit organizations to request that the U.S. Department of Education honor schools for their sustainable facilities, health practices and environmental education. The award that evolved from this petition, the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools program, promotes sustainability in schools and spotlights best practices in schools around the country.

In the development of the Green Ribbon School program, the education department, along with environmental group leaders, developed a definition of a green school, featuring what came to be known as the Three Pillars of the award:

  • PILLAR ONE: reducing environmental impact, such as waste, water, energy, greenhouse gases and transportation, encompassing the areas of school facilities, grounds and operations;
  • PILLAR TWO: improving health and wellness by promoting a healthy physical environment (including aspects such as air quality, contaminant control, moisture control, acoustics, daylighting, pest management and thermal comfort) and student and staff wellness practices (such as healthy school food and outdoor physical activity; and
  • PILLAR THREE: offering effective environmental and sustainability education, including civic learning, green careers, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) connections. 

Each year, individual schools and districts  apply to the state department of education; the NJDOE in turn nominates the top schools and districts based on their achievement in the program’s Three Pillars.     

Cape May City Elementary School and Readington Middle School join a distinguished list of New Jersey schools recognized by the U. S. Department of Education as Green Ribbon Schools. Since 2011, 25 schools in the Garden State have been honored. A list of the schools can be found on page 32.

Below are details about the 2020 honorees.

Cape May City’s Green Initiatives Cape May City Elementary School (CMCES) serves 150 students, 42% of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Many of the school’s students come from the families at the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May.

Located on 36 acres of diverse habitat, including field, forest, and salt marsh wetlands, the school is a Certified Wildlife Habitat through the National Wildlife Federation. CMCES has a long history of encouraging outside education: Some 30 years ago, with the help of the Nature Center of Cape May, CMCES reestablished a nature trail behind the school so that classes could take advantage of the biodiversity that the campus offers.

Fourth- through sixth-grade students are involved in a 10-month, county habitat study with a focus on the connections that are discovered during their explorations. In addition, all students learn about the Atlantic coast horseshoe crab/shorebird phenomenon, observing the baby horseshoe crabs as the school participates in the Green Eggs and Sand U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program.

The school’s Earth Club students, who oversee edible school gardens and the composting and recycling programs, are currently completing their Sustainable Food pathway through Eco-Schools USA; the school has also participated in Sustainable Jersey for Schools, earning a Bronze and two Silver certifications.

In the fall of 2015, the school participated in a citywide energy audit, using ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager. Following this audit, an Energy Savings Improvement Plan resulted in completing the switchover to LED lights in all areas. This change was estimated to save more than  $3,000 a year. The school also uses BERT smart plugs, which are programmed to automatically shut off connected electronics from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. schoolwide. The estimated savings is $5,000–$6,000 a year. In addition, the school campus wind turbine produces approximately $400 in savings. CMCES has become a PowerSave Schools with the Alliance to Save Energy. Third-grade students conduct energy, heat, light, and water surveys and are overflowing with ideas on how the school can improve its conservation efforts.   

One of the school’s top initiatives since 2017 has been led by students — the reduction of single-use plastics and Styrofoam. CMCES switched from plastic utensils to metal, phased out plastic straws, replaced Styrofoam soup cups with reusable mugs and switched Styrofoam coffee cuts and plates for compostable paper products. The school is continuing to reduce its plastic waste stream through new reusable salad containers, recycling campaigns, three additional water bottle filling stations, and participation in the TREX Plastic Film Challenge.

In addition to daily physical education, students participate in weekly swimming instruction in grades 3-6, an annual field day, a triathlon, fall Walk-a-Thon, and regular brain breaks, such as full school “Stop, Smile and Move” activities and classroom-specific Go Noodle programming. While the renovation of the swimming pool, reopened in 2017, after having been closed and under construction for five years, skews year-to-year utility use and savings data, the pool renovations itself included many conservation measures, including an energy-efficient dehumidifier, upgraded locker rooms with automatic-sensing sinks and toilets and a water bottle filing station.

CMCES is also dedicated to building strong alliances with families and community partners. This not only strengthens the school climate and culture but provides opportunities for civic engagement. The school participates in the Coast Guard Community annual festival, which includes sustainability activities. In addition, the school holds an annual, green STEAM festival open to the public with displays, hands-on activities, and a free eco-friendly raffle. These events provide a chance to educate and encourage participation in environmentally sustainable choices.

In 2012, CMCES was awarded Silver for the Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge, one of only two New Jersey Schools to attain this distinction that year. Breakfast is served in classrooms to all students daily. Families are encouraged to take advantage of an in-school celebration ordering system from the school cafeteria, which offers healthy options.

Readington’s “Triple Bottom Line”  Readington Middle School (RMS), located in Whitehouse Station, serves more than 500 sixth- to eighth-grade students. The school’s physical space — its building, solar installation, and native, rain and courtyard gardens — provide a context for student learning.  Teachers, facility staff, engineers, master gardeners, and local environmentalists work side by side with students to examine and understand energy usage patterns, the rise of invasive species and rain gardens as a solution to keep the watershed clean. The school has Eco-Schools USA Silver recognition and Sustainable Jersey for Schools bronze certification. 

Students rehabilitated a neglected native garden to examine changes that have occurred over the past decade. They developed a grant application and were awarded funds to create test beds to investigate resource use, carbon footprint, and crop yield of traditional farming as compared with indoor food growth in vertical hydroponic gardens.

Students are also designing a regenerative aquaponic food system for the school and are devising a smart solar-powered rain barrel irrigation that senses when watering is needed, based on real-time environmental conditions, to conserve water and optimize food growth.

Though RMS was built more than 60 years ago, the evolution of the building and the surrounding environment demonstrates the value RMS places on green technologies and natural features that enhance well-being and environmental and economic health.

Nearly 30% of the school’s energy is obtained from rooftop solar panels and ground arrays. Energy usage and savings data are displayed outside of the cafeteria, and the 1:1 Chromebook initiative allows students and staff to download data and share and submit work electronically, drastically reducing the need for printing and copying. The school tracks resource use in ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager.

Due to the school’s rural location, all students ride the school bus. Consolidated bus routes put in place in the district in 2015 have resulted in improved efficiency and reduced fuel usage.

An Indoor Air Quality plan is in place to ensure that HVAC equipment is maintained and filters are cleaned to promote good air quality inside the building. Students from the Global Goals team are developing an environmental monitoring station for RMS that uses sensors to detect environmental data. The goal is to research and track markers for climate change.   

The district green committee is actively led by a board member who is an environmental engineer. The superintendent initiated and supports infusion of social and emotional learning to help cultivate a caring, participatory, and equitable environment. Curriculum supervisors align courses with education for sustainability standards and bolster nonfiction reading. The business administrator, facilities manager, and energy efficiency coordinator all keep an eye on the triple bottom line –the district’s social, environmental and economic impact.

The school principal spearheads an annual Student Academy Day, where staff and community members join to host a day of health and well-being workshops, including archery, CrossFit, tai chi, and nature walks. The school health office and food services staff support a coordinated program where recommendations for healthier living have resulted in a salad bar, new menu items, and health education outreach for the community.

Students in each grade explore sustainability in projects and exercises that are integrated into the curriculum, and students work across grade levels to work to develop innovative ways to reduce waste, support responsible consumption and producdt, promote good health and well-being, and build internal and external school partnerships to make it happen.

More information on the Green Ribbon Schools program, including detailed information on all award winners, is available at the U.S. Department of Education’s website here.

Janet Bamford is NJSBA’s manager of communications and publications.