Now in its fifth year, the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) award program has started a movement in schools across the nation creating environmentally-friendly learning spaces powered with low emissions and alternate energy sources, filled with cleaner air and water, and cultivating our youth as environmental stewards to make sustainable choices for our future.

The ED-GRS award process opens every September to all public and private, K-12 schools, districts, and postsecondary institutions with an announcement from the New Jersey Department of Education’s Office of School Facilities. Schools apply by completing an application demonstrating they have reduced waste, water and energy consumption, improved the health and wellness of students and staff, and integrated environmental and sustainability education throughout their curricula. These actions are known as the “three pillars,” and schools are honored with the ED-GRS award in recognition of their excellence in each area.

In a new collaboration with the New Jersey Audubon Society, New Jersey’s oldest and largest conservation organization and coordinator of the Eco-Schools USA program, the applications for 2017 will be available in September for schools and districts to download online at with submissions due in December.

Applications from K-12 schools were reviewed and nominees were selected by a committee of representatives from the New Jersey School Boards Association, New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE), New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Board of Public Utilities, New Jersey Audubon, the Alliance for New Jersey Environmental Education, Sustainable Jersey for Schools, the New Jersey School Buildings and Grounds Association, NJ Designated Persons and the Cloud Institute. Each school was selected for its demonstrated progress toward energy efficiency, water conservation and waste reduction, thereby reducing operating costs. In addition, criteria included creating healthier learning environments by improving indoor air quality, reducing chemicals and pesticides, and adding nutritious food options, outdoor recreation, and wellness programs. Finally, schools were required to infuse sustainability and environmental education into their curriculum as a catalyst for STEM and 21st century themes.

The nominees selected by the committee are then sent to the U.S. Department of Education for final determination. Winners are announced on Earth Day, and then celebrated at a formal award presentation in late spring or early summer.  Board members and school officials should note that they can meet representatives from the 2016 Green Ribbon Schools at Workshop 2016 conference in October.

This year New Jersey received six awards, our highest number of recognitions to date. Four New Jersey K-12 schools were recognized as U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools. In their first year piloting the program, New Jersey’s Office of Higher Education nominated the Raritan Valley Community College who received the postsecondary award. In addition, the recipient of the 2016 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools Director’s Award was the state’s ownBernard E. Piaia, Jr., director of the NJDOE Office of School Facilities. This award recognizes Piaia for his leadership and dedication to advancing the ED-GRS program by building lasting partnerships within the state to support schools in their efforts toward all three pillars and modeling excellence in ED-GRS implementation for other state education authorities to follow.

Details on the four K-12 schools that were recognized for their achievements are below.

Whitehouse Elementary School, Readington School District

Whitehouse Elementary School is a public K-3 suburban school serving 350 students. Whitehouse convened its first school-level green team in 2011, and teachers worked with the students to offer an assembly where an “energy hog” was introduced as an analogy for environmentally unsustainable behaviors. Through behavior modification (turning off electronics, lights, computers, etc.), the school’s most recent quarter yielded a 26 percent savings in energy. Cost-effective recommendations from a New Jersey Local Government Energy Audit (LGEA) lead to the district’s decision to install new lighting, motion sensors and HVAC systems. A district-wide energy efficiency coordinator works closely with the Whitehouse School to track and monitor progress in energy conservation, while also writing grants for sustainability efforts. The school’s energy management program, SEE, is in its fourth year, and Whitehouse is pursuing funding to develop an energy lab in the school.

Approximately 70 percent of Whitehouse school property is school gardens, raised beds, wetlands, forest, and native grasses. A very active student green team helped determine how to spend discretionary funds; as a result the school acquired a rain barrel for a vegetable garden, two weather stations, three composters, sensory garden items and outdoor air quality flags.

Collaborating with community partners, the local Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts built a garden shed, created an outdoor classroom, designed new landscaping, recycled markers and helped with weeding. Rutgers Master Gardeners facilitated a schoolwide garden program and a curriculum map was created that spans all grade levels and is aligned with science units.

Recently honored as one of only five schools to receive the Silver Level Certification from the Sustainable Jersey for Schools program, Whitehouse’s efforts have been supported by the Readington School District, and by the greater community. Post-award, the Whitehouse School achieved international recognition as a 2016 Eco-Schools USA Green Flag School hosted by the National Wildlife Federation and N.J. Audubon for integrating sustainability practices throughout its curriculum in a student-driven program providing hands-on, problem-based learning experiences aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards.

Egg Harbor Township High School, Egg Harbor School District

Egg Harbor Township High School is a suburban, public high school serving 2,325 students with 47 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch. Egg Harbor has green teams at the district and school level and is supported by a full-time energy specialist for the district. The high school reduced utility costs through energy management, education, LED retrofits, changes in HVAC maintenance, and the installation of more efficient equipment, including motion-activated lights and a 454-kilowatt solar array that generates 15 percent of the school’s energy needs.

When the solar project was proposed, science classes developed public service announcements  displayed at various polling locations to encourage support of the bond referendum. Students now use the information and data gathered to work on yearly energy projects. These actions have led to an overall decrease of 35 percent in energy usage over the last four years. The school also encourages the residents in the township to analyze their personal impact on the environment and offers residents a free service called GreenQuest, so residents can compare their usage to other homes in the area.

Egg Harbor has adopted an outdoor air quality index flag program which raised awareness about the importance of reducing pollution and limiting automobile idling. Indoor air quality has been improved through the installation of Guardian Air UV air purifiers, which help to reduce the number of microbes in the HVAC systems.

Egg Harbor’s green team introduced students to composting during a series of science labs geared toward sustainability. Students created a schoolwide program which includes measuring, monitoring and studying the composting process from the classroom to the final product for use in the school garden, where students raise crops. This area also includes a wildlife habitat, an educational pond, a rain garden, and an outdoor learning area.

Students at Egg Harbor also championed recycling efforts and identified athletic and theatrical events as needing improvement. Recycling bins have been installed at various locations to accommodate events occurring during and after school hours. Through student efforts, recycling increased by more than 4,000 percent in the last four years.

Course sequences in environmental science and oceanography are accessible to all students and the concepts of globalization and how it impacts the quality of life around the world are introduced in Contemporary Issues and Economics classes.

Egg Harbor has been recognized as a 2015 New Jersey High School Sustainability Champion and awarded Silver Level Certification by Sustainable Jersey for Schools in 2015. The school also received the Nation’s Most Improved School in the 2013 Recycle Bowl, and EPA Energy Star Building Certification for 2013, 2014 and 2015.

West Caldwell Tech, Essex County Vocational School District

West Caldwell Technical School serves 343 students with 78 percent qualifying for free or reduced lunch and 52 percent designated as special education. The school’s sustainability efforts began five years ago with an energy audit, which prompted the decision to update lighting fixtures, replace boilers, and purchase energy competitively.

The school’s unique course offerings include a mandatory environmental science course covering sustainability, climate change, resource management, smart growth, green design, pollution leading to biomagnification and eutrophication, weather monitoring and biodiversity loss. Students collaborate with industry professionals regarding environmental issues and participate in international conferences via Skype to discuss issues such as air quality with participants in China.

West Caldwell Technical School’s agriscience course includes a hydroponics farming system and uses the National Curriculum for Agricultural Science Education (CASE), which emphasizes current scientific practices, agricultural research, and sustainable practices in agriculture. Students participate in the Trout in the Classroom Program where they raise trout from eggs, monitor tank water quality, engage in stream habitat study, and grow to have a greater appreciation for ecosystems.

The Culinary Academy incorporates vegetables grown in the school’s greenhouse, and develops healthier alternatives to popular recipes. Students also participate in a Sustainable Homes and Habitats Gingerbread Contest with the Essex County Environmental Center, where students design sustainable gingerbread homes which have included solar panels, farms, and windmills. The Retail Career Academy has replaced many snack options with healthier alternatives in the school store, and a farm-to-school program sources all seasonal fruits and vegetables for the West Caldwell Technical cafeteria from local farms.

The Construction Trades Academy currently incorporates a sustainable construction curriculum, which its own CTE (career and technical education) supervisor helped develop while serving on the Sustainable Architecture and Design Advisory Committee. Another staff member served on the New Jersey Green Program of Study for Sustainable Design Construction and Energy Committee. The school has developed key partnerships, activities, and outdoor learning spaces to expand the learning environment beyond the confines of the classroom. West Caldwell Tech recently received the Essex County Executive Certificate of Commendation for its green initiatives.

Triton Regional High School, Black Horse Pike Regional School District

Triton Regional High School is a suburban public high school serving 1,172 students, with 40 percent of the students qualifying for free or reduced lunch. Constructed in 1957, the school recently received the EPA Energy Star Rating of 83. Solar panels generate 45 percent of the school’s energy needs and more than 19,000 high efficiency light bulbs have been changed throughout the school district through an Energy Savings Improved Plan (ESIP). The school has also established wiser refrigeration, heating, air conditioning and irrigation practices.

Triton has discontinued the use of chemicals to strip flooring, installed filters in HVAC systems, and improved recycling and composting with the help of its partner, Organic Diversion, a company that supports and coaches the students and staff on how to collect materials and provides reports on collection quantities and strategies to improve composting and recycling efforts. The compost is also used in the science curricula, where students examine it for microbes and decomposition rates.

Triton maintains two functioning greenhouses that are used to nurture plants from seeds to supply the organic garden housed at another school in the district, which is maintained by the green team, the AP Environmental Studies classes, and the horticulture classes. The school’s landscape contains native plants and includes a butterfly garden and one acre of wetland that cannot be altered. Triton has three stormwater basins that retain water to allow the slow seepage of water back into the ground to replenish and recharge ground water. This reduces the amount of water running into the public stormwater system. Triton’s experienced groundskeepers use a strict turf management system by developing a deep-root growth system, therefore cutting down on the use of fertilizers and vastly lowering the watering schedule.

The AP Environmental Science class created environmentally-sound solutions for unused land in the community, which the students presented to the mayor and town council for consideration. Chemistry classes use sustainability concepts like the Bhopal disaster as an example of chemical use gone wrong. The course also studies new battery technology used in electronics and hybrid cars. Horticulture students learn how to propagate lemon geranium from cuttings, which then are used as a natural pesticide. Nutrition, culinary and hospitality courses discuss nutritional concepts, food contamination, and organic foods. Digital photography stresses conservation through digital portfolios. The marine science course culminates by studying human effects on the oceans and sustainable ways to interact with the ocean’s resources. Students compete in an Envirothon, as well as the Sea Perch competition, where students develop a submarine that can simulate a Navy mission.

For more information, and to apply to become a 2017 Green Ribbon School, contact Allison Mulch, coordinator for ED-GRS and Eco-Schools USA, based out of N.J. Audubon’s Plainsboro Preserve at the email address at right. To read more about the 2016 winners and see their full applications, with additional details of their sustainability efforts, go to

Allison Mulch is project coordinator for Eco Schools NJ at New Jersey Audubon. She can be reached at [email protected].