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From worms eating food waste at Hokulani Elementary to the Science Learning Center at Mililani High School to the aquaponics of Kalani High School, schools all over Hawaii are incorporating environmental education and practices into their curriculum. The collective impact can bring huge savings, as our schools are the state’s third largest energy consumer and produce heaps of waste. More than that, schools of course grow future citizens, and can provide children’s best resource for learning to malama ‘aina and our natural resources.

Green schools have been sprouting nationwide for more than a decade, seeded by parents’ desires for farm-fresh cafeteria food, teachers’ interest in including sustainability in every academic subject, children’s love of hands-on learning and the outdoors, and administrators’ motivation to save energy, hence money. Now, all of this is becoming officially adopted.

Green Ribbon Awards

In November 2010, Hawaii’s Department of Education (HIDOE) created a policy that states, “HIDOE has a fundamental responsibility to educate students about sustainability and to model sustainability”. And the current school year (2011-2012) marks the first in which the US Department of Education (DOE) will give Green Ribbon Awards to recognize 50 schools nationwide for efforts to save energy, feature environmentally sustainable learning spaces, offer environmental education and boost community engagement. It’s part of a broader US DOE effort to identify and promote practices proven to result in improved student engagement, academic achievement, graduation rates, and workforce preparedness, as well as a government-wide goal to increase energy independence.

Names of the first crop of Green Ribbon Schools will be released on April 23.

Vetting applicants for awards

Questions on a 15-page intensive application gauged a school’s progress towards three Green Ribbon School “Pillars”:

1) The school has a “net zero” environmental impact

2) The school environment has a “net positive” impact on the health and performance of students and staff

One-hundred percent of the school’s graduates are environmentally and sustainability literate

Applicants were assigned points for meeting targets, and representatives of Hawaii Energy, US Green Building Council (USGBC) Green Schools, Kokua Hawaii Foundation, and the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools tallied the scores.

Hawaii DOE Assistant Superintendent Randy Moore was tasked with evaluating the applications and nominating four. If that sounds daunting, so was the application. “A number of questions required detailed information on energy usage and environmental curriculum,” Moore says. But the nine schools that filled it out took it in stride. “Schools reported that completing the application was itself a learning experience and will heighten student and adult environmental awareness,” Moore adds. As science teacher Bill Wiecking of Hawaii Preparatory Academy puts it, “The process helped us to realize we could be doing better”.

The nominees

Hawaii’s four Green Ribbon Schools nominees demonstrated progress towards the three pillars but in different and unique ways. Each had a variety of strong points. In addition, Kalani High and Kahuku High and Intermediate, were also recognized by HIDOE for their efforts in energy conservation and environmental sustainability.

‘Ewa Makai Middle School (EMMS)

Hawaii’s first “green” school, the stunning facilities at ‘Ewa Makai Middle School (EMMS), which opened in January 2011, meet LEED® Gold standards for energy-efficient and building with sustainable materials and healthy indoor air. But perhaps EMMS’s proudest achievement was the student-initiated introduction of Senate resolution SCR33, which requests that all public schools in Hawaii commit to implementing at least five “Green Hawaii” initiatives. The suggested ideas range from composting to conservation and recycling, and it’s suggested that these projects can help to raise needed school funds. “This resolution will not only impact the ‘Ewa community, but could positively affect all public schools statewide,” says ‘Ewa Makai’s student activities coordinator Vanessa Kealoha who leads a group of 15 students to implement green initiatives at the school. All that led by 7th and 8th graders.

Hawaii Preparatory Academy

Hawaii Preparatory Academy on the Big Island incorporated LEED building standards into the design of their Energy Lab. In response to a 2007 student-led GoGreen movement, the Energy Lab functions as a net-zero energy, fully sustainable building dedicated to the study of alternative energy. “[We] got the students involved in the metrics and the measuring of things, like how much energy the campus uses. They can see something and say that’s not right,” Wiecking says. For example, when he and his students made their campus assessments, they found that the dorms were using diesel fuel to generate heating. Now Wiecking and his students are creating a plan for 2015 that addresses sustainable issues beyond energy, such as quality of life, transportation, food, water and waste.

As in ‘Ewa, more important than the buildings is what goes on inside. For senior student, Mariko Thorbecke, 19, Energy Lab has been life changing, “Two years ago, I wouldn’t have thought of a career in engineering.” Now she’s planning a career as a control systems engineer for renewable energy technologies, and plans to attend a prestigious engineering college. “Understanding sustainability through hands-on approaches makes it more personal, unlike from textbooks.” Real-life application of renewable energy technologies, (a recent project involved students compared the efficiency of several of-the-shelf wind turbines) are what make this program especially unique.

Pahoa High and Intermediate School

Science teacher Nancy Iaukea focuses her teaching at Pahoa School on real-world service learning projects such as recycling and composting in order to instill students with a sense of responsibility for the environment. “It’s exciting because the whole school is involved,” she says, “All of the students and staff are involved in energy savings, for example. The Belkin Energy Meter Lab went home with students and staff allowing them to measure household energy usage.” The school has a Green Club that has been instrumental in moving the school toward a green standard and created a 30-second PSA and 14-minute documentary on waste reduction and recycling, both of which were aired statewide on public television. The school-wide effort is what earned Pahoa their Green Ribbon status. Principal Darlene Bee agrees, “I believe that our teachers are the inspiration for our students’ high achievements. I am privileged to work with such talented teachers and students.”

Waikiki Elementary School

Spirited parents and teachers at Waikiki School started Project Green 2007, and immediately began a recycling program and planted gardens at the school. In 2011, the school went further with their green commitments by hiring a sustainability and garden educator. Students meet regularly to discuss topics such energy conservation, food miles, and to work in the gardens. ”I think the gardening class is really good for our school, because it reminds us that gardening and saving energy for the school helps everybody,” says 6th grade student Hannah Mayo. “And it means we don’t have to eat processed food anymore,” chimes in 5th grader Janice Lei. In fact, one of the goals of the green program at Waikiki is to assure that all students have access to fresh, real foods that they grow themselves. To that end, students are selected each week to fill a box of fresh produce from the farm–anything they want. The only requirement is that they write down their original recipes and create a unique, often humorous title. “One of the strengths of Waikiki’s farm program is it’s connection with the community,” says 4th grade teacher John Melton who has started a culinary program at the school with volunteer Dave Caldiero, chef de cuisine of Town. “I’d like to open their eyes to the possibilities and show them just how simple it is to cook,” says Dave. “It’s important because these kids are the ones who are going to make the changes.”

What next? “It is my hope that the schools who completed the application share their experience and knowledge with each other,” says Chris Parker, Chair of USGBC Hawaii Green Schools, “The application was a great self-evaluation and an opportunity for us all to see what areas could use more support.”

Clearly, Hawaii is up for the challenge.