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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Paul Holland, MacKenzie Knapp and other students planted this rain garden to collect roof runoff and slow down stormwater at Spring Harbor Middle School in Madison. © Dave Ropa.
Paul Holland, MacKenzie Knapp and other students planted this rain garden to collect roof runoff and slow down stormwater at Spring Harbor Middle School in Madison.

© Dave Ropa

February 2005

Green schools = Healthy communities

A voluntary environmental assessment program offers the right equation for students to examine their school grounds and learn about the community.

Joel Stone and Christal Campbell

DePere digs deep for information | A program that's part of the community
How different schools took up the challenge
Raise the G&H flag

It's often said schools are a microcosm of society. If that is true, Wisconsin is on the way to a sounder, safer future. Through the Green & Healthy Schools program, students, teachers, parents and communities are working together to save energy and make better use of natural resources on and around school premises. Efforts by participating schools to create a clean, wholesome environment for learning and growth have had positive spin-off effects, including lower school operation costs and, in one case, an improvement in local traffic flow.

Untangling a traffic snarl is certainly a worthy achievement, but the program's most valuable contribution is the number of students who gain firsthand experience of the complexities involved in managing resources and who learn how to bring about change through collective evaluation and action. The decisions and choices they must make and the actions they must take to have a Green & Healthy School mirror the situations they will face as tomorrow's citizens and leaders.

DePere digs deep for information

Christine Fossen-Rades, a teacher at DePere High School, says her school embarked on the Green & Healthy School program when Pat Meyer, building and grounds supervisor for the DePere School District, asked her environmental science class for help. "He wanted my students to give him ideas and sources of information on how to make future school buildings healthy, safe and environmentally friendly," she recalls. "Little did we realize what an impact his request would have."

Surprised and pleased by Mr. Meyer's request, her students were eager and ready to help. Through an Internet web search they discovered Wisconsin's Green & Healthy Schools, a three-step voluntary program developed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Department of Public Instruction (DPI). The website offers guidance on how to evaluate a school and plan activities and projects to improve a school's resource use, buildings and grounds.

The students quickly realized the best way to test ideas to make future schools greener and healthier would be to use DePere High School as a Green & Healthy guinea pig. Within a few days they completed Step 1 of the program: Forming a Green & Healthy Team of students, teachers and other school staff. With the support of their principal, the team signed the pledge to become a Green & Healthy School.

Moving on to Step 2 – Discovery and Inventory – the team conducted a health, safety and environmental assessment of the school building and grounds, covering waste reduction and recycling, energy and water use, indoor air, mercury, chemicals, integrated pest management, transportation, facilities and grounds, and community service. "We spent a lot of time evaluating our school and it has taught me a lot," says senior Katie Hutjens. "Every time I walk into a room and the lights are on, I think about how much energy our school uses."

The team is now working on Step 3: Action and Implementation. DePere's action plan includes a Focus on Energy audit of their school; revamping the "commons" recycling program; promoting a "Did You Wash 'Em?" hand washing campaign; developing a district-wide kitchen composting program; and initiating a "Buckle-Up" transportation safety program. The school hopes to achieve official Green & Healthy status this year.

Ms. Fossen-Rades knew her students would be up to the task, but she was unprepared for the enthusiasm and support other individuals within the school district and community brought to the effort. "This opportunity has empowered my students to dig deep for information, and then to elicit change," she says. "I am very proud of them, and they are very proud of themselves. I am certain these new stewards of our environment and school will remain active citizens."

A program that's part of the community

Schools today want students to see themselves as members of the larger community outside school grounds. By becoming good stewards and taking care of their own property, students practice the habits that will keep the whole community clean, healthy, safe and enjoyable. Through teaching, application and community outreach, Green & Healthy Schools gets students involved in the decision making process.

Though it appears to be a new program, Green & Healthy Schools is really a compilation of many DNR and DPI initiatives. The goal of the program is to promote, encourage and recognize schools as community role models in conserving valuable natural resources and maintaining healthy and safe environments. The program is available to all public and private elementary, middle and high schools in Wisconsin.

Schools do have to meet certain requirements to become Green & Healthy Schools, but most of the requirements allow for flexibility and can be adjusted according to a school's unique circumstances. For instance, newer schools may be more energy efficient than older schools; some schools have well-developed grounds used as teaching tools while others do not; and some schools have better recycling programs than others.

How different schools took up the challenge

Meadowbrook Elementary School in Waukesha has been working to become a Green & Healthy School since April 2004. The school already had a good community service program and a butterfly garden, but found areas for improvement."Teams of teachers, parents and STARS (Students Together Addressing Real Stuff), with the help of school custodian Randy Rebro and Waukesha County Recycling Specialist Meribeth Sullivan conducted the whole school assessments," says teacher Sally Michalko. "We discovered what types of health, safety and environmental practices were already in place and where we need to improve our efforts. So far, we've made the most progress in waste reduction, recycling and transportation."

"Many positive changes have taken place in the lunchroom," says Randy Rebro. "Recycle Raccoon, Waukesha County recycling mascot, and best friend Meribeth Sullivan made classroom visits to encourage waste-free packaging of lunch. Students and parents were surprised to see how much packaging is discarded and what could be recycled. Each day, two students serve as "recycling supervisors" to show students which bins to use."

Parents involved in the transportation assessment formed a larger committee to grapple with traffic concerns at dismissal time. They studied traffic flow, parking problems, the bus pick-up site and the obstructed views by the driveway crosswalk. "Buses now pull up and park at the end of the school instead of the main entrance where they hampered crosswalk visibility, and students taking the bus now exit the school from a side door instead of clogging the main entrance," says Ms. Michalko. "A 'yellow island' was painted in the wide driveway to give students a halfway point for safe crossing, and portions of the curb were painted yellow as no-parking areas. Walking, biking and carpooling are encouraged."

In Madison, Spring Harbor Middle School is an environmental magnet school, but is it green and healthy? "Not completely," says G & H team leader and teacher Dave Ropa. "When Spring Harbor began its assessment, students realized that even for a school with a focus on the environment, there is always more that can be done."

Students and staff launched the school assessment process by examining the grounds and water use. The assessment checklists prompted a lot of questions, and the team developed a plan to modify or improve the way many of the school's resources were used. Spring Harbor was built in the late 1950s, and some of the old plumbing fixtures are not very efficient. Though the team couldn't change the fixtures, it did explore ways to reduce the amount of water used.

Students and staff were very encouraged by what they found on the school grounds. A 2,000-square-foot prairie garden and a 500-square-foot rain garden add diversity to the grounds. Using grant funds provided by the Leadership Greater Madison Team and the Madison Foundation for Public Schools, students designed the rain garden and planted native species to help reduce runoff into nearby Lake Mendota. The garden is a teaching tool: Students measure water infiltration rates in the rain garden and compare their data to a control site.

"Students were very proud of the extensive recycling program that had been put into place since the school's inception," says Mr. Ropa. "They share responsibility for collecting and transferring recyclable materials to the recycling container and make a concerted effort to use the correct containers. However, they discovered some students still don't recycle correctly. This caused them to begin work on a plan to re-educate students and staff about what can be recycled and where."

Spring Harbor is on track to complete assessments soon and hopes to share its experiences with other schools interested in making the effort to become green and healthy.

At Oconomowoc High School in Waukesha County, a senior got the school involved in the Green & Healthy School. "I found out about the program at the Governor's High School Conference on the Environment and brought it up to our Ecology Club advisor, Mr. Olander," says Tina Schuett (OHS '04). "I knew we had to do this, and it became a whole school effort." Many of Tina's classmates pitched in, and with strong backing from school administrators and support staff, the assessments were completed by graduation day.

Students inspected windows (over 700 of them) and lights for energy efficiency, pipes and faucets for leaks, and air vents for obstructions. Some students met with the school's bus company to explore more efficient routes and to discuss engines left idling when buses parked near the school.

"Our inspection heightened whole school awareness," observes student Heidi Hargarten. "Things often got fixed before our scheduled inspections or immediately after." The day before the parking lot and driveway inspection took place, some new directional signs showed up. Leaky faucets were repaired immediately after they were reported.

"Along with key project leaders and Matt Newmann, the director of buildings and grounds for the school district, some 40 to 50 students in all classes helped with the project," says teacher Mike Olander. "It touched a lot of students. It's also unusual to have seniors in their last semester give of their time in this way."

A new group of student leaders is carrying on. Charlie Boeke is trying to improve the school's recycling program and to reduce paper use. MacKenzie Kyle is interested in learning how regional road construction will affect a nearby local creek. Other students are seeking grants and support to address some of the more expensive problems they found. And all agree with fellow student Sarah Willey, who "really likes a healthy environment and keeping our school nice – a better place to be."

Raise the G & H flag

Participation in the Green & Healthy Schools program increases the sense of ownership students, teachers, staff and parents have in their schools. Together, they create a healthier, safer learning environment for all. Schools save money by reducing consumption and operating costs conserving natural resources, getting more use of the school building and grounds as teaching tools, and increasing connections with the community.

After a school completes each step of the program, it receives a certificate and door stickers to recognize the effort. When a school fulfills all the requirements, it is presented with a large Green & Healthy School flag to celebrate and honor its success. As an added incentive, any school that becomes a Green & Healthy School before May 31, 2005 can apply for a one-time grant for up to $1,000 to help cover expenses incurred for the program.

Please visit Wisconsin Green & Healthy Schools and encourage schools in your community to take part. For further information, contact Christal Campbell, DNR, (608) 264-8976, or Elizabeth Kane, DPI, (608) 266-2803.

Joel Stone recently retired as DNR's recycling educator. Christal Campbell is a DNR environmental educator based in Madison.