Not even a global pandemic could keep schools and school districts in New Jersey from advancing sustainability initiatives at the local level. In 2020, 147 schools achieved Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification. This total marks a milestone for the most schools certified in an application cycle since the program began in 2015. Of the 147 schools that achieved certification this year, 80 schools did so for the first time and 67 schools were recertified.

Overall, 60% of New Jersey public school districts are participating in Sustainable Jersey for Schools, a program that provides tools, training and financial incentives to support school leaders as they pursue sustainability programs. From energy audits to integrating sustainability into student learning and boosting recycling efforts, the past year has been exceptional.

Grants Available Sustainable Jersey for Schools offers grants to support the efforts of schools and districts. To date, over $2.2 million in grants has been provided.

The 2020 funded projects are inspiring. For example, Collingswood High School is focusing on building an equity component into the school’s sustainability initiatives; Red Bank Charter School is piloting green cleaning products to gain support towards the adoption of a green purchasing policy by the school, and Bellville Public Schools is implementing the New Jersey Trout in the Classroom initiative in all of its schools to teach students about conservation and waterways. To view a list of the grants currently available and the list of projects funded, visit the Sustainable Jersey for Schools website.

A good way to understand the work schools and districts are doing through the Sustainable Jersey for Schools program is to examine the accomplishments of the three schools that achieved the 2020 Sustainability Champion awards: Ramtown Elementary School (Howell Township school district); Winslow Township Middle School (Winslow Township school district) and Raritan High School (Hazlet Township school district).

The Sustainability Champion Award recognizes schools that were certified this year with the highest number of points in their category: elementary, middle or high school. We also highlight two special award recipients: Newark Public Schools (2020 Sustainability Makes $ense Award) and Egg Harbor Township School District (2020 Collaboration Award).

Ramtown Elementary School—Recognized for Sustainability Leadership Howell Township, a suburban community located in the southernmost portion of Monmouth County, is home to Howell Township Public Schools, which serves approximately 6,000 students in preschool through eighth grade. All 12 of the public schools in the district achieved certification with Sustainable Jersey for Schools in 2020. This year, Ramtown Elementary School, one of five elementary schools, received the 2020 Sustainability Champion award in the elementary school category.

“We are excited that Ramtown Elementary has reached the highest point total for an elementary school in the state of New Jersey. These accomplishments do not happen by accident,” said Joseph Isola, Howell superintendent. “They happen because we have built a cohesive approach to sustainable practices. We have 12 schools, but it is one community. We know this work matters and we are glad to be a part of it.”

Ramtown Elementary has an impressive portfolio of sustainability accomplishments, including a roof top solar array, sustainability professional development opportunities, behavior-based energy conservation programs, a hydroponic garden, plastic straw elimination from the cafeteria and faculty room, completion of an energy audit, regular energy tracking, green cleaning, anti-idling education, a school wellness council and more. “Our mission is to create change and make a difference because after all we each have a responsibility to make a positive impact on the world around us,” explained Albert J. Bohrer, Ramtown Elementary principal.

Winslow Township Middle School Provides an Active School Garden Program Located in Camden County, the Winslow Township School District serves approximately 4,500 students, and all eight of the public schools in the district achieved certification with Sustainable Jersey for Schools. Winslow Township Middle School, located in Atco at the western edge of Wharton State Forest and the Pine Barrens, received the 2020 Sustainability Champion award in the middle school category.

“It’s an honor to be recognized with the Sustainability Champion award. We appreciate Sustainable Jersey for Schools for providing our school with vision, encouragement and support,” noted Stella Nwanguma, the Winslow Township Middle School principal. Science teacher and Green Team Committee chair Portia Kiett added, “Teamwork and collaboration are how we achieved this. We teach the students that sustainability is thinking about the future so that our actions today don’t impact the future negatively. They understand we can each play a role in making the planet better.”

Winslow Township Middle School’s sustainability program includes a rooftop solar array, green cleaning, recycling, behavior-based energy conservation programs, local produce in the school cafeteria, social emotional learning programs for staff and students, and community service events.

Winslow Township is surrounded by a farming community; however, many students have limited knowledge about the farming industry. Winslow Middle School bridges this gap with an active school gardening program. The middle school has two courtyard gardens and hydroponic growing systems in the science classrooms. A large green house is being constructed now to expand the garden capabilities. Projects like the vertical gardens and new greenhouse were supported with $40,000 in funding from the Sustainable Jersey for Schools grant program.   

Teacher Ross Cruz’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) class maintains the gardens. He explained, “Our overall 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 challenging students to develop real-world solutions to address these issues.”   

The students start the school year by cleaning up the garden and planting cool-season crops. They maintain the space through weeding, mulching, watering, composting and fertilizing several times a week. Food challenges based on the cooking show “Chopped” are developed for students to use the vegetables and herbs grown. Throughout the year, students use the garden to learn about biodiversity, seasonal plants, native plants, plant care and sustainable practices. The second garden is a pond courtyard where students can be taught about pond ecosystems, native plants and birds.

Teacher Jessica Glatz summed up their approach, “If we can show the students the importance of sustainability now, it is something they will carry with them throughout their life.”

Raritan High School Eliminates Styrofoam Trays from Lunch The coastal region town of Hazlet Township in Monmouth County is home to the Hazlet Township Public Schools serving about 3,000 students. All eight of the public schools in the district achieved certification with Sustainable Jersey for Schools. Raritan High School received the 2020 Sustainability Champion award in the high school category.

“Since 2016, Hazlet Township Public Schools has been striving to become more sustainable and greener in our policies and practices. We are thankful for the green team members who work hard to make the schools more sustainable,” said Dr. Andrew R. Piotrowski, the principal of Raritan High School. Raritan High School’s sustainability initiatives include an extensive solar array on the building, energy efficient windows and lighting, energy tracking and management, composting of cafeteria food scraps, paper use reduction, green cleaning and education for sustainability curriculum. 

In an effort spearheaded by members of the Raritan High School Environmental Science Club, the cafeteria has switched from using Styrofoam trays for the hot lunch to plastic trays that are washed and reused. “The goal is to remove the amount of waste sent to landfills. We hired a graduate of our Raritan High School Life Skills program to lead the initiative,” said Piotrowski. The initiative was supported by a $10,000 Sustainable Jersey for Schools grants funded by the PSEG Foundation.

Eight water bottle refilling stations have been installed throughout the high school building to encourage students and staff members to reduce waste from plastic water bottles. In the first four months, the students and staff of Raritan High School saved approximately 8,400 plastic water bottles.

The Hazlet School District constructed an outdoor environmental learning center in one of the underutilized courtyards at Raritan High School. The center has a pollinator garden with a waterfall feature, two outdoor planting beds, a heated greenhouse and a patio. The green house grows plants during the winter and starts seeds for outdoor beds in the spring. The planting tables were built by woodshop students and the food grown is used by cafeteria staff and the culinary arts students. The Raritan High School Environmental Club, in cooperation with the cafeteria staff, have installed composting bins in the center to produce compost from the food scraps generated from the cafeteria and the Culinary Arts classes. The compost is used on the outdoor planting beds and in the greenhouse. The initiative was supported by a $2,000 Sustainable Jersey for Schools grant funded by the New Jersey Education Association.

Newark Public Schools: Recognized for Cost-Saving Sustainable Practices Newark Public Schools in Essex County was recognized by Sustainable Jersey for Schools for sustainable practices resulting in cost savings to the school district. Sixty-one schools in Newark Public Schools achieved certification in 2020. Each school completed an energy audit through New Jersey’s Clean Energy Program “Local Government Energy Audit” program. Newark Public Schools instituted an Energy Savings Improvement Program. “The project encompasses 63 energy conservation measures such as lighting retrofits, boiler replacement, roof replacement, solar installation, upgrading systems and components to improve the safety of energy use and performance monitoring. Weequahic High School in particular achieved 30.3% energy savings. From 2017-2019, the district saved $1.9 million, 4.7 million kWh and 460,000 therms of gas,” said Rodney Williams, Newark’s director of sustainability.

Municipal and School Green Teams Collaborate in Egg Harbor Township In Atlantic County, the Egg Harbor Township School District Green Team and the Egg Harbor Township Municipal Green Team were recognized for their impressive collaboration efforts to advance sustainability including the Catawba project, the Egg Harbor Municipal Community Teaching Garden tended by Egg Harbor Township school students and the Egg Harbor Township Environmental Commission work-study Eagle Academy projects.

The 2021 Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification cycle has begun. We look forward to supporting the schools and districts that are working toward a brighter future, one school at a time.

Heather McCall is program director of Sustainable Jersey for Schools.