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New York to Nominate Schools for Federal Environmental Award

The US Dept. of Education, through Green Ribbon Schools, will accept nominations from New York in early 2012 for the state's most environmentally-conscious school districts.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education (USED) announced that 33 states and the District of Columbia are set to be included in a new initiative called Green Ribbon Schools.

New York is one of the states that will participate in the program, the purpose of which is to "recognize schools that save energy, reduce costs, feature environmentally sustainable learning spaces, protect health, foster wellness and offer environmental eduction to boost academic achievement and community engagement."

The New York State Education Department (NYSED), along with comparable entities in the other participating states, will nominate up to four schools to compete for federal recognition in the Green Ribbon program.

According to USED, states can nominate up to four nominations. If a state nominates more than one public school, one must be a school with "at least 40 percent of their students from a disadvantaged background." If a state nominates the maximum of four schools, one of them must be a private school.

While the number of awards to be given out in 2012 isn't set in stone, USED says that it plans to allot 50 awards during the first year of the program, with a goal of expanding the program to include 200 awards annually within five years.

Green Ribbon Schools includes three main pillars for determining how schools can best reduce their environmental impacts while supporting students' environmental education and personal health.

The first pillar is Environmental Impact and Energy Efficiency, which includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions by conducting energy audits and adopting emission reduction plans. This pillar also includes addressing areas such as water quality and conservation; reducing solid and hazardous waste; increasing recycling programs; and alternative transportation projects.

The second pillar is Healthy School Environments, which aims for schools to create and manage environmental health programs while using "high standards of nutrition, fitness and quantity of quality outdoor time for both students and staff."

The third pillar concerns Environmental and Sustainability Education, through which USED is promoting "interdisciplinary learning about the key relationships between dynamic environmental, energy and human systems;" and including environmental and sustability education to "prepare graduates for the 21st century technology-driven economy."

USED has compiled an extensive resource list for education departments and school districts that includes pre-existing programs at the federal and state levels. New York's Green Cleaning Program and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation's Green Schools program are on that list. Some of the federal programs include the Department of Energy's EnergySmart Schools, the EPA's Student Guide for Global Climate Change, Safe Routes to Schools, the First Lady's Let's Move campaign and the Farm to School Program.

The Green Ribbon Schools program seems to be a sound effort by the federal government to create standards for environmental education and sustainability in the nation's schools. However, in my opinion the Green Ribbon recognition isn't enough to bring the majority of the nation's schools on board with environmental awareness, since only four schools in each state will be nominated for the 2012 award. Even over the course of five years, if USED does implement its goal of 200 awards annually, that's only a small fraction of the nation's schools.

While USED argues that schools receiving the Green Ribbon award will serve as models for implementing environmentally sound policies, a better approach would draw in as many school districts as possible into making at least some substantial changes to their management and curriculum policies. For instance, if a school district without extra monetary resources were to implement a recycling program, the district would be taking steps toward sustainability and would also likely be able to generate revenue from sale of recyclable materials.

One of the aspects of Green Ribbon Schools that deserves attention from all school officials is student health. There's a direct correlation between high poverty rates and high childhood obesity rates, and it's unfortunate that low-income communities don't have many resources to address issues like unhealthy school food and how students remain sedentary for most, if not all, of the typical school day. Those districts are also less likely to be able to invest in clean energy and building efficiencies promoted by Green Ribbon Schools.

With only a handful of school districts in each state possibly earning a Green Ribbon nomination, let alone an award, there's not much incentive for districts grappling with a plethora of other issues to seriously address through the Green Ribbon resources what kids are eating in the cafeteria and how much time is available to them for exercise during the school day.

There's obviously a lot of work ahead of us if we want our schools to be places that operate more thoughtfully and efficiently. And with school districts facing unprecendented fiscal woes, USED and other federal entities can create infinite pillars and guidelines for more sustainable practices, but where is the motivating factor that's going to inspire more school officials to start making changes to the way they do business?

USED expects to receive state education department nominations in March and during Earth Day Week in April, USED will announce the Green Ribbon Schools winners.

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