The U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) award program was launched in 2011-2012 to recognize the highest performing green schools in the nation. The recognition award honors exemplary achievement in reducing environmental impact and costs; improving health and wellness; and providing environmental and sustainability education to effectively incorporate STEM, civic skills and green career pathways.

New Jersey has successfully participated in this program every year by hosting an annual award cycle which begins each September with an announcement distributed by the New Jersey Department of Education’s Office of School Facilities. The current year’s application is then made available for schools and districts to download from the Educational Information and Resource Center at

Submissions are due each December and nominees are selected by committee, then forwarded to the feds for their final determination. Winners are announced each year on Earth Day and celebrated at a formal award presentation in June or July.

This year’s award ceremony was held on June 3 in Washington, D.C. and representatives from four New Jersey schools were honored for achieving the designation of 2015 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools.

Each school was selected for its demonstrated progress toward energy efficiency, water conservation and reduction of waste, which in turn, saved money. Additional criteria included creating healthier environments more conducive to learning 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.

Read about the four winners below and meet representatives from the schools at the Workshop 2015 conference in October.

Middlesex County Vocational and Technical High School, East Brunswick campus, East Brunswick The Middlesex County Vocational and Technical School East Brunswick campus is a suburban school, built in 1969, which serves 637 students. Through conscious conservation efforts, the school reduced its domestic water use by 16 percent and energy use by 18 percent in just a year’s time. The school had an outside contractor perform an energy audit and subsequently implemented retrofits.

All maintenance issues at the school are used as educational opportunities; teachers diagnose problems with students in pertinent career paths. The school participates in the New Jersey Green Program of Study, sponsored by the New Jersey Department of Education, to offer three designated sustainable pathways: sustainable architecture and design; green construction; and energy for a sustainable future.

Middlesex Vo-Tech/East Brunswick conducted a sustainable courtyard project. As interior courtyards had become overgrown and unattractive, the school collaborated with several career majors – architectural technology, carpentry, HVAC, agriscience technology and welding – to create a beautiful space. The students removed overgrown vegetation and built walkways using reclaimed wood planks. Students also dismantled two trailers and recycled the wood and metal. Welding students made metal frames for bridges and carpentry students created two completely recycled bridges from reclaimed wood. Upon completion of the courtyards, the school was contacted by Woodbridge Township to assist with the Green Museum, which began the school’s mission to educate students and staff about sustainability and using reclaimed products in career majors.

The East Brunswick campus of Middlesex County Vocational Technical School is a Weather Bug School that collects data on the weather, some of which is shared with the National Weather Service. It also makes use of Curriculum for Agriculture and Science Education (CASE) and Trout in the Classroom. The school’s Green Technology Exposition included projects such as organic dry cleaning and a dance department video about a trash vortex in the ocean.

A recent project is a school garden. Agriscience students planted raised beds and experimented with different herbs to keep the pests out, but groundhogs were winning the war. Students consulted several local farmers, who determined that the garden needed to be fenced. Farmers also helped students learn about proper soil nutrition, crop rotation, and garden maintenance. For cold weather, the students built cold frames to grow kale and spinach for the culinary arts department, and herbs are grown in the hydroponic system in the school’s green laboratory. Students also built compost bins for scraps and created a groundwater containment pond to provide a habitat for – and enable student instruction about – various aquatic species.

The school was awarded a Coordinated School Health Grant from the New Jersey Department of Health. As part of the school’s goal to promote student and staff health in the school, the cafeteria added a salad bar, switched Styrofoam lunch trays to reusable trays, and began to offer more seasonable fruits and vegetables. The food service provider changed food vendors to limit the distance the food had to travel. The staff and student body, along with the community, have embraced Middlesex/East Brunswick’s mission of health and fitness and the school hosts a five-kilometer run in honor of a deceased graduate.

Timber Creek Regional High School, Erial Timber Creek Regional High School in the Black Horse Pike Regional district, is a suburban school serving 1,329 students. Timber Creek has reduced utility costs since installing high-efficiency lighting, changing refrigeration practices, establishing wiser heating and air conditioning practices, shutting off lights and computers when not in use, and structuring more responsible irrigation practices. As a result, Timber Creek has mitigated climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent in three years. Over 58 percent of the school’s energy usage is produced onsite with a 1.3 megawatt solar array.

Timber Creek has focused attention on a philosophy of “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” The school has organized a composting and single-stream recycling program throughout the school. Compost is collected by Organic Diversion, a company that coaches the students and staff on how to collect materials, and provides the school with reports on collection quantities and strategies to improve composting and recycling efforts. The compost is also used in the science curriculum, where students examine it for microbes and decomposition rates.

Timber Creek has improved indoor air quality by discontinuing the use of chemicals used to strip flooring and installing filters with a minimum efficiency rating value of eight in HVAC systems. The school’s wellness coordinator organizes biometric screenings and establishes weekly goals for individual staff members and establishes workout regimens. The health and physical education department welcomes guest speakers throughout the year.

Timber Creek has an organic garden constructed from untreated, repurposed solar-panel wood shipping boxes. The garden is supported by a 300-gallon off-grid rain collection system that collects roof rainwater and uses a 12-volt battery recharged with solar to power a pump with a capacity of four gallons per minute. Garden produce goes to the cafeteria, local food banks, and community senior centers.

Sustainability issues are integrated into the curriculum. In chemistry, topics studied include solar cells, nuclear energy and environmental chemistry, greenhouse gases and how they contribute to global warming, alternative energy sources, the hydrogen fuel cell and biofuel. Students learn about nutritional concepts, food contamination, organic foods, healthy food choices, and composting in the nutrition, culinary, and hospitality courses. Food-based classes use the food grown in the organic garden. In environmental science, the climate unit treats greenhouse gases and climate change according to a framework of natural climate change, evidence for past climate change, and current observations with implications for the future. The energy unit covers fossil fuels and an evaluation of alternative energy sources. Biology classes address the relationships between resource use and sustainable development and how humans impact the diversity and stability of ecosystems. Art students use trash, newspapers, recycled materials, drips of paint, and found items to create sculptures and paintings. Engineering students create cardboard chairs, cranes out of recycled materials that hold as much weight as possible, and robot chassis from repurposed pallet wood.

Princeton Day School, Princeton Princeton Day School (PDS) is a coeducational prekindergarten through 12th-grade private day school for 900 students.

PDS created a Green Panther Certification Award for classrooms and offices to self-monitor behavior based on environmental indicators and questions. The pre-K through 4th-grade classrooms all have a designated sustainability student leader, and use a green/red magnet system to save electricity. PDS has also created a Green Panther Home Award for families to implement these conservation behaviors in their own homes.

In 2011, Ecometrica performed a greenhouse gas assessment that quantified the school’s emissions, and the school launched facilities changes to decrease its environmental impact. PDS has installed CO2 sensors, passive solar harvesting lights, occupancy sensors, low-flow toilets, water bottle refilling stations, high-efficiency boilers, double-pane high-efficiency windows, and a building control system. PDS has composted more than 80,000 pounds in the last four years. The school has a fully transparent bill system that tracks all forms of energy use on a monthly basis. The students performed greenhouse gas assessments in 2013 and 2014 in partnership with students from nearby Princeton University.

PDS created an annual Barn Week during which lower school students learn animal stewardship, and garden education is integrated into the health and wellness initiative in all grades. High school students prepare an annual Harvest Dinner from local and organic food for 250 families and teach about its importance.

PDS has a physics course on energy; a history course on oil; an English class on food, sustainability, and writing; a compulsory sustainability course for all sixth graders, and required outdoor garden classes for all preK–fourth grade students that involve a 50 x 150 foot organic garden.

PDS has implemented sustainable dining practices. There is an outdoor kitchen and classroom for the use of the school community. No disposables are used in the school’s dining or catering, all food is cooked from scratch, the school uses 19 percent local food, and the school hosts “Healthy Me, Healthy Planet” Tuesdays featuring foods high in nutrition and low in carbon footprint. All food other than dairy and meat is composted. As a result, PDS has become Green Restaurant Certified at the three-star level.

The high school’s very active Environmental Action Club (EnAct) organized environmental issues conferences titled “Our Future, Our Challenge” with more than 100 students participating from public and independent schools. EnAct partnered with the Princeton Environmental Film Festival to create Next Generation Fairs and won the Youth in Focus Award. EnAct and the PDS Theatre Company promoted sustainability education through the stage production of the play “Urinetown,” earning the 2014 Paper Mill Playhouse award for education.

PDS has offered teacher workshops in school garden design and curriculum reform. The school’s sustainability coordinator and garden coordinator present regularly at conferences, and welcome educators to come to PDS for advice on making grounds more sustainable teaching tools. PDS runs environmental summer camps that are open to the public.

William Davies Middle School, Mays Landing William Davies Middle School (WDMS) is one of three schools in the Hamilton Township school district in Mays Landing. It has 980 students in grades six through eight. As a Title I school, 52 percent of students receive free and reduced-price lunch. WDMS is one of the largest middle schools in New Jersey, but the school’s reach extends beyond state borders, thanks to social media. Five years ago every student was given a netbook through the Talent 21 Grant Initiative. This motivated staff to rewrite the curriculum to implement this technology to create 21st-century learners and young environmental stewards. For example, sixth-grade students hear from speakers from the Atlantic County Utilities Authority and create projects demonstrating how they are reducing their carbon footprint. Their art projects on endangered species are exhibited at a local mall for shoppers to vote on a favorite. Seventh-grade students focus on water conservation via their annual Walk for Water to raise money to place wells in Ghana. Eighth-grade students participate in an annual Green Career Day, which offers presentations from local sustainability-minded companies. Environmental literacy projects include investigations of sustainable agriculture and students rewrite job descriptions to reflect environmental changes and demands.

The school is an Eco-Schools USA and a Keep America Beautiful Recycle Bowl participant. The environmental club created an outdoor learning space through fundraising and product donations and developed relationships with local businesses, nonprofit groups and colleges. Now students care for vegetable gardens, a greenhouse, a koi pond, rain barrels, a drip irrigation system, and a butterfly garden. For many of the students, these outdoor habitats are their only exposure to these plants and animals.

Solar panels generate 14 percent of the school’s energy usage and double as a teaching tool to study solar energy. Moreover, WDMS partnered with the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey to obtain an extensive energy audit for the school, which will encourage WDMS to increase focus on energy management and reduce its carbon footprint.

Get more information on the Green Ribbon Schools program, including highlights from winners in other states.

Allison Mulch is senior manager of the New Jersey Sustainable Schools Consortium.