Story and photos Fran Ruchalski
On Thursday, Oct. 7, Christ the King grade school celebrated being chosen as a Green Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education for its efforts in sustainability. Students, staff, and parents came together for an afternoon of fun, learning, healthy smoothies, and a school-wide biodegradable balloon launch to kick off the festivities.
The DOE bases their award on a school’s ability to employ three main practices:
—Reduce environmental impact and costs of operating the school and its programs.
—Improve the health and wellness of the school’s students and staff.
—Provide effective environmental and sustainability education opportunities for all the students.
The school was the only one chosen for this honor in Florida and may be the only Catholic grade school to ever receive the designation in the country.
The party comes after 2 1/2 years of a concentrated effort at the school to meet these guidelines, spearheaded by principal Stephanie Engelhardt and STEM coordinator Suzette Wilhelm.
To meet these sustainability goals, the school has replaced air conditioning units with more efficient, clean units, installed new efficient lighting in the gym, and have replaced cleaning chemicals with natural organic solutions instead of those with high toxicity chemicals.
They’ve added an extra gym period for the students to get the students out and moving during the day to improve their health and wellness.
Thanks to a grant from Catholic Charities, they’ve added a salad bar during lunch, with food grown on the campus by the students. An outdoor classroom has also been added.
Many of the projects are envisioned, designed, and brought to life by the students and the staff. The kids have built retaining walls at the school, raised garden beds, the chicken coop, the blueberry enclosure and more. The solar collection panels on the green outside the classrooms are maintained by fourth-graders.
The Strawberry Creek project has been undertaken with the help of St. Johns Riverkeeper where the kids go once every week to collect data on the quality of the water.
Agricultural projects like blueberries, strawberries, herbs, and chickens have all been added. The students understand the benefits of composting and using worms in the soil. The kindergarteners tag butterflies for a migration study.
An aquaculture system is being installed for growing tilapia in a tank with the water used for growing and fertilizing plants hydroponically.
“Everything we do is an integrative educational program from kindergarten right on up,” said Wilhelm. “And agricultural stewardship is a huge part of it. The kids are not just growing something but learning what it takes to grow it and how to use it.”
“We had a farmers market where the kids came up with different items like packages of worms and composted soil they sold. We made $3500, half of which went to educational programs and half they donated to L’Arche Harbor House.”
And Wilhelm sees more outdoor programs and nature studies in the school’s future. All built on the pillars of sustainability, environment, agriculture, and better health.