It’s crunch time for the first group of schools working to become certified in the inaugural year of the Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification program.

The program, launched in fall 2014, is a certification and recognition program for New Jersey public schools that want to go green, conserve resources and take steps to create a brighter future, one school at a time. Sustainable Jersey for Schools provides tools, training and financial incentives to support and reward schools as they pursue sustainability programs.

To date $320,000 in grants has been offered to districts and schools to make progress and countless webinars and workshops have helped to lead the way. Sustainable Jersey for Schools now has 224 schools and 85 districts registered and working toward achieving certification. Of this inaugural group, 70 schools within 24 school districts submitted an initial application for certification. The applications include more than 2,000 certification actions that the schools and districts plan to do.

To achieve certification, schools must complete certification actions that total at least 150 points. Each certification action has a point value and schools choose from 87 actions that include performing an energy audit, integrating sustainability into student learning and boosting recycling efforts. Each action includes guidance about who should be involved, resources, what to do, submission requirements and other information related to completing the action successfully. Review the certification actions.

Schools collaborate with their district to complete actions, upload documentation and achieve certification. Certification status is awarded to the individual school, but each district completes a certification application that then populates points into the school application.

Erica DeMichele, K-12 supervisor of curriculum for Delran Township School District is leading the effort to get Millbridge Elementary School certified. In the first round of reviews, this school’s application was at the top for points approved. DeMichele said, “I love the Sustainable Jersey for Schools actions, they are practical and provide new ideas for what we can do at the school level. For example, we’re now gathering partners and developing ideas for how to improve the outdoor facilities to inspire physical activity while incorporating elements of a sustainability curriculum. In order to be good stewards of the earth we need to pay attention to the health of our students and staff.” She added, “We had students submit applications to be a part of the green team. The response was great. The kids know how to do these actions and want to make changes. I’m now getting calls from other schools asking how to start their green team.”

School Gardens Certification Action

Schools receive ten points toward certification for completing the School Gardens action. This is a popular action for schools; 49 of the first 70 schools applying for certification indicated that they plan to do this action.

This action requires the creation and maintenance of a school garden. In order to earn points, the garden needs to have been active during the current or previous growing season, include plantings that produce fruits, vegetables or herbs that can be consumed by students, and be used to teach environmental or nutrition education.

The William J. McGinn Elementary School garden, located in the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Regional School District, is a good example. Students at the K-4 school turned an unused outdoor storage space into a vegetable garden and outdoor classroom.

The kindergarten students grow and study plants and share their findings with second-grade buddies. The first-grade classes developed a picture map of the vegetables grown in the garden. The second-grade students wrote letters to pen pals across the district regarding what they had planted. The third-grade developed global cookbooks based on how different cultures use the foods grown. The fourth graders wrote persuasive letters about the benefits of the vegetables they grew to seventh-grade peer leaders who then visited the garden to get an informative tour.

School Travel Plan for Walking and Biking Certification Action

Another action that will earn a school 10 points is the School Travel Plan for Walking and Biking action; currently 27 schools intend to complete this action. This plan maps out how to improve pedestrian and bicycle travel to and from school with the goal to increase the number of students who walk and bike to school and to improve safety. Safe Routes to School Regional Coordinators at Transportation Management Associations (TMA) throughout the state can assist schools in developing the plan.

Hampton Public School, located in Hunterdon County, created and continues to update the Hampton Public School Travel Plan that it developed in partnership with HART Commuter Information Services. Hampton Public School conducted a walk audit of Hampton Borough and fourth, fifth, and sixth-grade students took notes of both positive and negative aspects of their town. The results were included in the updated travel plans.

Waste Audit Certification Action

In order to be certified, schools must implement two of eleven priority actions. The Waste Audit action provides a school with 10 certification points and is one of the priority actions. The action requires an assessment of the quantity and origin of the school’s waste. Waste can include recyclable paper, beverage containers, non-traditional recyclables like ink jet and toner cartridges, usable and reusable items, food and materials like electronics, fluorescent bulbs and chemicals.

A waste audit is useful because a school cannot develop a waste reduction and recycling plan without first identifying the materials that need to be reduced, recycled, re-purposed or disposed. As part of the Galloway Township Kids Go Green curriculum, the Galloway school district has done several waste studies and a walk-through audit of the middle school. A detailed report and recommendations were sent to the school superintendent and plans are being made to perform audits at the other four schools in the district.

The Galloway Township Middle School Environmental Club members recognized from the report that their school cafeteria needed to improve its recycling procedures. They, along with the school principal, the cafeteria employees, and maintenance workers set up procedures to increase the recycling of beverage containers such as milk cartons, cans and juice containers. The school invited two students to attend the food services meetings which has resulted in a push to remove Styrofoam from the cafeteria and has allowed for two-way communication between the students and the staff.

Galloway Middle School Principal Paula Junker said, “I have a great deal of pride in my school, so of course I want to make it more sustainable. Sustainable Jersey for Schools is one way to spotlight and organize all of the things we are doing like Mr. B’s Backyard Classroom, Grizzly Garden, the environmental club and our school’s solar panels. Since we formed the green team, the teachers, students and operations managers are now coming to me with new ideas regularly.”

Green Cleaning Policy Certification Action

The Green Cleaning Policy action is worth 10 points and can be completed at the school or district level. Implementing a green cleaning program helps to improve air and water quality, student and staff health and reduces costs.

The Newark school district in Essex County is the largest school system in New Jersey with a student population of 40,000 and more than 80 schools. The district employs about 500 staff in its custodial operation. Because of the impact a clean environment has on students, Newark public schools initiated a green cleaning program. A pilot program was instituted to determine how well Green Seal-certified products would perform in an urban school district with buildings averaging more than 85 years in age. The pilot proved to be successful, and the products were quickly accepted by the staff as a less-toxic alternative to the chemicals they had previously been using. The district removed chemicals that had the potential to cause “asthma triggers” and allergic reactions to chemically-sensitive students and staff.

Sustainable Jersey looks forward to celebrating with the first group of schools that achieve certification at the New Jersey School Boards Association Workshop 2015 in October. And, if schools and districts need an additional incentive to get started, there are grants available to help move projects forward. Visit the grants and resources webpage for an overview.