Across the country, schools are under major pressure to “go green” and protect the environment while teaching our children. But school leaders with a vision of becoming eco-friendly are no longer on their own. Major organizations – from non-profits to universities – are stepping up to assist.

A Day Without Water In October 2015 Ocean City School District, in Ocean City, held a special holiday for students – and it wasn’t Halloween. The district administration partnered with New Jersey American Water (NJAW) to celebrate “Imagine a Day Without Water.” This national campaign created by the Value of Water Coalition raises awareness and educates the public about the need for reinvestment and the challenges facing water infrastructure and water resources. The district’s three schools were involved in the campaign.

“We are excited that the Ocean City School District chose to partner with us on this important effort,” said Peter A. Eschbach, the company’s director of communications and external affairs.

A group of Ocean City High School students in video production, environmental, and Interact classes created an infomercial about a single American’s daily water usage. NJAW provided 100, one-gallon water jugs for the students’ video, as well as such statistics as “less than 1 percent of the water a person uses every day actually is ingested.” Written and edited by Ocean City High School teachers and students, the infomercial will be used by NJAW for future campaigns.

At the Ocean City Intermediate School, NJAW employees taught students from fifth-through-eighth-grade about water industry careers. An engineer visited social studies classes, a water quality specialist visited science classes, and a station utility mechanic parked an NJAW truck in the parking lot and demonstrated tool usage.

Students learned about STEM careers, water systems, and what goes into maintaining and repairing water infrastructure.

The district’s Primary School also received age-appropriate giveaways, including coloring books, which focused on water and conservation.

NJAW also partnered with Pinelands Regional High School in Tuckerton on another aspect of the campaign. The company solicited the upper-level graphics design class at Pinelands Regional High School to create about eight memes. The images were posted on the NJAW and New York American Water Facebook pages and viewed by hundreds, if not thousands, of people.

“It’s been fantastic! It’s overwhelming, but I’m honored and happy to be working with an actual company,” said Pinelands Regional High School senior George Sauer. “We can only learn from this experience.”

NJAW chose Ocean City as a partner for “Imagine a Day Without Water” because the district has a wealth of experience in “being green.”

Since 2009, the district has partnered with the Wetlands Institute to “Bring Wetlands to Life in Ocean City.” This program provides students with exceptional opportunities to learn about and interact with their wetland surroundings every spring. About 1,000 students from kindergarten through high school spend months researching, identifying, and applying scientific methods through grade-specific interactive activities, as well as going on field trips to Corson’s Inlet State Park, the Bayside Center, the Wetlands Institute, and more.

Every year, the district pays for the program through a grant from the Ocean City Free Public Library, which also is where most of the programs are held.

“The Wetlands Institute’s lessons and visits develop and reinforce science skills while bringing our students closer to their community,” said OCSD superintendent Kathleen Taylor, Ed.D. “The Ocean City School District and Ocean City Free Public Library work together in educating the community at-large. This program is special in that it enables our natural landscape to educate many young members of our community.”

At the end of the yearly program, students must create a presentation for their peers, community members, and the Board of Education at “Wetlands Night.” At this point, the students have a better understanding of the organisms and ecosystems present within Ocean City, as well as an understanding of how the scientific process works.

Installing a Rain/Pollinator Garden Another school district taking advantage of “go green” grants is Medford Township Public Schools. When Jeanne Gural, the executive director of the Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge, saw a problem in one of the district’s schools, she approached the school with an opportunity.

In 2013, Taunton Forge Elementary School was having water troubles, so Gural suggested installing a rain/pollinator garden on an over-excavated patch of land. She wrote a successful grant proposal for $3,500 and presented it as a partnership between the school and Cedar Run, also in Medford. The district also received about $1,500 in goods and services from various vendors.

“The project was a perfect partnership that helped us reach students in a new way, with a focus on STEM-based environmental education. Working with the schools to provide for a more sustainable environment just makes sense. We have resources and experienced staff that a school alone may not have access to,” said Gural.

The 1,000-square-foot rain garden was installed over a period of two years. Since its completion in 2015, the garden has become a functional pollinator habitat and outdoor classroom for the entire school. Run-off from the school’s roof waters the plants.

The district received bronze certification from Sustainable Jersey for Schools for its efforts, and was honored, along with Gural, at an awards ceremony held in conjunction with NJSBA in October 2015.

“The rain garden project that Jeanne worked on at Taunton Forge Elementary School was instrumental in adding points to our district’s goal in attaining Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification,” said Joe Del Rossi, Ed.D., Medford Township superintendent. “This project assisted our district in resolving an ongoing problem with the watershed as well as supported our STEM curriculum. It was a win-win from everyone’s perspective.”

“Working with the children from Taunton Forge Elementary School on their rain garden was one of the most rewarding projects I have worked on in my nearly seven years with Cedar Run,” said Gural. “It is our goal – and hope – to partner with additional school districts across the state. It’s a win-win situation for Cedar Run.”

Gural said that for a $5,000 grant, which Cedar Run helps find and secure, a school could install a rain/pollinator garden, with New Jersey native plants, and have a STEM-based curriculum designed around the garden. Cedar Run also provides the tools for teachers to use the garden as an outdoor classroom for a full school year.Cedar Run offers a “Green Your School” program where the staff helps plan and implement environmental projects on school campuses to earn points toward obtaining a Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification. Cedar Run works with schools to plan projects, coordinate volunteers, seek funding to cover project costs, and more. Possible projects include lessons on sustainability, creating a biodiversity management plan, conducting a schoolyard biodiversity audit, and the design and installation of a rain/pollinator garden.

A Middle School Environmental STEM Class When a district can’t decide whether it’s best for students to learn from guest speakers, send students on eco-oriented field trips, install a garden, or bring world-class equipment into the classroom to study in STEM-related fields, it might be best to do it all. That’s what Winslow Township School District did in creating an Environmental STEM class for seventh- and eighth-graders at its middle school for the 2015-2016 school year.

The class focuses on experience-based learning, with students engaged in projects outside the classroom. But inside the classroom, students can take advantage of hydroponics equipment, paid for by a grant, installed to help them learn to design, build, and maintain systems. Eventually, the herbs, vegetables, and grasses will be planted in the school’s gardens.

The class can also learn from field trips such as one they took in February to the Rutgers EcoComplex in Bordentown, where the students learned about the center’s experimental hydroponics system. The students took a tour of the landfill and hydroponics facility and learned about composting and methane gas.

“My students were amazed when they saw $120,000 worth of basil being grown hydroponically. It was a great opportunity for the kids to see that you can do this year-round, and it’s not based on weather, soil, or insects,” said Winslow Township Middle School teacher Ross Cruz.

Cruz’s class also has taken field trips to Stockton University to test campus lake samples in campus labs and meet with university professors, the Rowan University Fossil Park, and Lincoln Financial Field, which according to Cruz, is one of the leading National Football League stadiums for environmental change.

“We wanted to give the students field experience and show them how it relates to the real world, as well as to show them career opportunities,” said Cruz. “It’s an awesome class for the kids and they really do enjoy it. I don’t give homework, but the parents tell me that the kids are constantly talking about my class, which is exciting because they don’t have to be. They’re looking at things differently now, which is the whole point. During parent/teacher conferences, parents say their kids love the class and love that the district is offering this type of course, which is demanding and requires higher expectations of the students.”

There are numerous opportunities available for schools that wish to “go green” and there is no shortage of help – but you need to be creative in who you ask!

Julie Bonette is an account associate with Laura Bishop Communications.

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