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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Schools Earn Green Ribbon for Environmentalism

May 25, 2012 08:50AM ● By Carrie Jackson

Students at Prairie Crossing Charter School (PCCS), in Grayslake, aren’t likely to complain about the school lunches. Once a month, using produce and other ingredients that they have helped to plant and harvest from a nearby farm, the kids make their own farm-to-table lunches. The school is one of three in Illinois that was recently awarded a Green Ribbon Schools award, in part because of its dedication to providing healthy nutrition and integrating nature into the curriculum. The other two schools, Waters Fine and Performing Arts Magnet School and the Academy for Global Citizenship (AGC), both in Chicago, have created equally innovative ecological programs, and all have a strong mission of student-centered health and learning.

The Green Ribbon Schools award is part of a national program by the U.S. Department of Education that identifies schools with a comprehensive focus on green initiatives. Illinois is one of 33 states participating in the program, which recognizes schools where staff, students, officials and communities have worked together to produce energy efficient, sustainable and healthy school environments and to ensure the environmental literacy of the students. Doug Widener is the executive director of the Illinois chapter of the United States Green Building Council, which helped promote and facilitate the competition in Illinois. “Children function better when they have access to clean air, day lighting, regular exercise and healthy foods,” he says.

Waters maintains more than three acres of gardens onsite in which the students take an active role. Pete Leki, the school’s director of ecology programs, says the students participate in all aspects of the maintenance: planting, weeding, mulching, watering, harvesting, fresh food preparation, meal sharing and composting, to complete the cycle. In addition to science classes, the school has a special Field Ecology Program that starts with pre-kindergarten and includes studies of butterfly morphology and field trips to observe river bottom organisms.

At the AGC, environmental stewardship runs through every part of the students’ day. The facility is cleaned only with products that are Green Seal certified, and students play the role of compost bin manager and recycling director in the classroom. They track the production of the solar power they use and run a zero-waste food program via composting and using reusable products. It’s this total immersion into healthy environmental practices that Widener says sets Green Ribbon Schools apart. “These schools have a comprehensive environmental theme throughout everything they do,” he says.

At PCCS, that includes a two-year intensive service project that the students begin in seventh grade. Naomi Dietzel Hershiser is the director of environmental education, a job title most schools don’t even have. She says that while the theme is about the environment, students get very creative with their topics. “We have kids working on bluebird boxes, installing recycled tire mulch in local playgrounds and teaching environmental topics at other schools,” she says. “Classes have made and sold composting systems and rain barrels, and lobbied for the passage of the No Child Left Inside Bill,” says Hershiser. She also helps facilitate the Farm-to-Table program at PCCS, where each classroom has their own garden at a nearby nonprofit organic learning farm. She adds, “This year there will be a soup garden, a tomato sauce garden and a salsa garden, all with the end goal of making those various foods.”

Widener stresses that while Green Ribbon Schools are exemplary in their approach to environmental health and education, there are simple things any school can do to raise their awareness and lower their carbon footprint. “Get back to the basics by giving kids regular gym classes and the ability to play outside,” he says. “Eliminate carbonated and sugary drinks from the vending machines and provide fruits and vegetables at every meal.” Schools can focus on conservation by recycling and having light monitors or a lights-out program, and integrate the curriculum by graphing ozone levels in math classes or talking about global warming during history class.

The more teachers, administrators, families and communities open up about exposing students to environmentally healthy habits and practices, the more likely they are to adopt them as their own. Submerging them in this mindset from the beginning makes it feel normal for them. Says Leki, “It is just what we are, and therefore we have expectations of each other to do right by our world, to make our behavior more thoughtful, less consumptive, more human and natural.”

Illinois Green Ribbon Schools Program;
Academy for Global Citizenship, 5101 S. Keeler Ave., Chicago; 773 582-1100. Prairie Crossing Charter School, 1531 Jones Point Rd., Grayslake; 847-543-9722. Waters Fine and Performing Arts Magnet School, 4540 N. Campbell, Chicago; visit 773-534-5090.

Carrie Jackson is an Evanston-based freelance writer and blogger. Visit her at