New York State School Boards Association

In a forested corner of NYS, a district wins Green Ribbons

by Merri Rosenburg

On Board Online • January 13, 2020

By Merri Rosenberg
Special Correspondent

On the main road into the Orange County town of Warwick, N.Y., a sign says, "Bring Your Own Bag."

Historically, this portion of New York State near the New Jersey border has been agricultural, and it’s surrounded by forests. The Appalachian Trail runs through Warwick, and it’s been deemed an Appalachian Trail Community™ (i.e., a welcoming place for hikers and good neighbor to the trail) by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

"The community values being green," said Sharon Davis, president of the Warwick Valley school board. "This is near and dear to most residents."

Maybe that explains why the 3,600-student district is the only one in New York State to win a Green Ribbon School designation from by the U.S. Department of Education. In fact, all four schools in the district have won Green Ribbons in 2018 and 2019.

Unlike the federal Blue Ribbon awards for academic achievement and improvement, the Green Ribbon program is not well-known. In fact, there is no Wikipedia page for it.

Created by the Obama administration in 2011, the Green Ribbon program honors schools that have undertaken innovative efforts to provide sustainability education, reduce their utility costs and environmental impact, as well as improve health and wellness for their students.

Warwick Valley is a poster child for embedding environmental awareness in the curriculum and incorporating respect for the environment into a myriad of school activities.

Besides a robust recycling program (including compost bins in elementary school classrooms as well as in cafeterias), there are water filling stations to discourage the single-use water bottles. Once or twice a year, cafeterias serve a no-waste lunch. The last buses the district purchased run on propane.

At the high school, there's a greenhouse and an academic agricultural program. In the middle school, there's a class on a green architecture. And at the elementary schools you'll find a garden, outdoor classrooms and 10 acres of solar panels.

Such efforts stem from an official sustainability policy developed by the board of education in 2015. One of the stated goals is "to support environmental stewardship through curriculum, educational programs, and operational decision-making."

Strategically, the environmental policy also tied in to the way the district wanted to "re-imagine education for the 21st century," according to Lynn Lillian, a Warwick school board member for the past decade. "We were looking at professional development, skills-based, hands-on and project-based learning . The sustainable goals are sustainable and elevate every part of the district."

She noted that the district partnered with local organizations, such as Sustainable Warwick, to develop its policy and provide worthwhile projects for school groups including an Environmental Club.

"We look at the people in our community as resources," said Lillian. "We're fortunate to have a superintendent who can make that happen."

David Leach, who has been superintendent since 2013, said one challenge involved finding ways to incorporate environmental topics into the curriculum while still meeting all state standards. The district worked with the Children's Environmental Literacy Foundation to provide professional development for teachers.

Teachers are under no obligation to incorporate environmental issues into lessons, but many do, even in the humanities. As Jason Touw, a Warwick Valley High School environmental science teacher explained, an English class could explore themes of sustainability in a novel, while a history course could ask students to discuss how a civilization like the Aztecs overcame environmental obstacles.

Elementary school students are particularly passionate about nature and the environment, said Leach. "We're leveraging the excitement and enthusiasm."

For instance, you will find third graders in the Green Club at Sanfordville Elementary School trying to set an example by avoiding use of plastic straws and asking their parents to pack lunches in containers rather than plastic baggies. They learn that it can take 500 years for a plastic bag to decompose, and the United Nations estimates that by 2050, there could be more plastic than fish in our oceans.

"This appeals to their sense of morality," said kindergarten teacher Nancy Noolas-Nachtigal, an advisor to the Green Club. "They love animals and nature."

"These kids are influencers," said Maureen Nelsen, a teacher and another club advisor.

According to Davis, the school board president, the district's efforts are not just about being environmentally responsible and educationally creative, but also fiscally responsible. For example, the district's array of solar panels "wipes out the electricity bill" and saves the district about $300,000 annually.

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