The Great School Greenings

New Initiatives Aim to Get Classrooms, Cafeterias and Kids More Environmentally Fit

As Earth Day heads our way—April 22—bringing with it promises of green bulletin boards festooned with recycling arrows in elementary school hallways across America, larger school greening projects are afoot. It’s the year of the school greenings, apparently, as the nation has collectively woken up to the fact that: a) many school buildings are outdated and, as such, both inefficient and unhealthy; b) much of the food we sell or give to kids in school is processed garbage; c) kids really have become disconnected with nature, further contributing to physical and mental unhealthiness, and preventing them from forming the kind of bonds with the outdoor world that will make them want to stand up for the land, air and sea later on.

Jayni Chase kicked off a GREEN Community Schools Initiative for the MGR Foundation on March 22.©

Here’s a look at three major initiatives to get school kids—and school buildings—environmentally fit. Happy month-until-Earth Day!

1) On March 22, Jayni Chase launched the MGR Foundation‘s GREEN Community Schools Initiative, kicking off in Chicago at Al Raby High School for Community and Environment. This initiative aims to get environmental information directly into the lives of urban students by "weav[ing] lessons of sustainability through the school’s curriculum" as well as the more nuts-and-bolts work of replacing light bulbs and improving school recycling rates.

Chase (wife of actor Chevy Chase) shared her enthusiasm about the project at a school-wide assembly at Al Raby that included a tour of the school’s home sustainability projects, like energy audits the kids performed as well as room-by-room energy-reduction evaluations. The partnership between the school and MGR will include, among other things: curriculum support regarding climate change tracking; working with chemistry classes on growing algae for biodiesel; expanding recycling and composting at the school; getting kids involved in tracking the school’s energy use and designing energy reduction strategies and, down the road, building a fruit and vegetable garden on campus. Green jobs preparation and outdoor education is all part of the package, as well—giving city kids exposure to, and enthusiasm for, the natural world.

2) Earth Day Network has made a major commitment to schools in honor of their 40th anniversary this year. Their national GREEN Schools Campaign is aiming to green all K-12 schools—from curriculum to classrooms to cafeterias—in a generation. With a combination of school policy reform, green makeovers at qualifying schools and extensive resources and grants for teachers through Earth Day’s Educator’s Network, EDN is tackling school reform in a holistic way that impacts everyone from kids attending the schools to teachers designing their lessons. And they see a major upside to building green—writing that green schools "cost on average less than 2% more to build than a traditional school"—money that’s gained back easily through energy and water savings. That’s enough in savings, they write "to hire two additional full-time teachers."

3) Although it was overshadowed by talk of pending healthcare legislation, on Friday, March 19, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to expand and improve outdoor education opportunities for children. The bill, HR 3644, is called the Ocean, Coastal and Watershed Education Act and it would expand two government grant programs to give kids more hands-on experience in environmental work to prepare them to be future green leaders.

The Sierra Club responded by saying: "Today’s passage of HR 3644 opens doors for more children to participate in programs that provide hands-on experiential education opportunities along our waterways and lays the foundation for active participation in the 21st Century green economy."

Two days earlier, on March 17, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont along with Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and 12 other senators introduced the Growing Farm to School Programs Act which would provide $50 million in startup funds to schools and districts so that they can connect with local growers and provide fresh food in their lunchrooms.

Says Leahy in a press release: "Connecting farms and schools makes sense in so many ways, from economics to nutrition. The school lunch program is a sizable buyer in every community. There is no need to start from scratch. We have pent-up demand for fresh local food, and ample local supplies. It’s a natural fit for an untapped market. What we need are the links and logistics to get the ball rolling. This bill is catalyst to forge these connections and let them flourish."The new bill is likely to be incorporated into a major child nutrition reauthorization bill that is nearing action by the Senate Agriculture Committee.

CONTACTS: Al Raby School; Earth Day Network Green Schools; Farm to School Bill:; Green Community Schools Model.

BRITA BELLI is editor of E.