Gilbert Elementary School in Walker County, Georgia is one of 63 schools nationally to earn a National Green Ribbon School award from the U.S. Department of Education. Principal Matt Harris accepted the award recently in Washington D.C.  The aim of U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools is to inspire schools, districts and Institutions of Higher Education to strive for 21st century excellence, by highlighting promising practices and resources that all can employ. 

To that end, the award recognizes schools that:

  1. Reduce environmental impact and costs;
  2. Improve the health and wellness of schools, students, and staff; and
  3. Provide environmental education, which teaches many disciplines, and is especially good at effectively incorporating STEM, civic skills, and green career pathways.

Combined progress in ALL three of these areas, collectively known as Pillars, serves as the basis for recognition. Each Pillar is divided into Elements, which provide further guidance on each of the three main areas.  The award aligns with the Department’s cross-cutting goals for education, including improving student, staff, and facility performance and increasing efficiency at the federal, state, and local levels. At the post-secondary level, these Pillars help to support the goals of reduced college costs, increased completion rates, higher rates of employment, and robust civic skills among graduates. The recognition award is part of a U.S. Department of Education effort to identify and communicate practices that result in improved student engagement, academic achievement, graduation rates, and workforce preparedness; and reinforces federal efforts to increase energy independence and economic security.

Here is the information from Gilbert Elementary School.

Imaginations run wild in the school forest Gilbert Elementary School students are place-and project-based STEM learners. At each grade level, students are involved in ongoing authentic STEM research taking place throughout the school year, rather than as an isolated event. Every aspect of Gilbert has an environmental focus, including art and physical education, which focus on outdoor education. Students work collaboratively on various projects and learn to communicate their findings. One product of fourth-grade students’ work is two miles of student-blazed trails that are open to the public outside of school hours. Many Gilbert families take advantage of this resource, and each class is targeted to spend an hour per day in the forest. The school’s Forest Kindergarten classes spend three hours per day outdoors, rain or shine, in self-initiated playtime in the woods. Students learn to use their imaginations, be creative, discover, and explore, while developing a love and empathy for the natural world.

Each grade level conducts environmental or sustainability education research projects. Because of the level of curriculum integration, students are able to spend more time exploring nature, problem solving, and developing innovative solutions to real-world problems through practical application. Gilbert students hammer, dig, saw, and measure. Students have worked to build passive solar panels for use in classrooms, a hydroelectric generator with a washing machine, and have grown plants for biofuels. Each grade works with professionals in a field related to their project, such as arborists, farmers, biologists, engineers, foresters, professors, and horticulturists. Kindergarten learns about life cycles by hatching and raising chickens. First grade plants milkweed and explores the forest tagging plants that will attract pollinators. Second grade rescues native plants and explores the forest to find rare plants with a biologist. Third graders are the resident organic gardeners. They are responsible for the maintenance of Gilbert’s composting program and worm farm, and they collect food from the cafeteria each day after the lunch period to use in the composting bins, composting an average of one to two yards a month. Every fifth grader spends three days at an environmental education camp to which the Gilbert curriculum is aligned. The gifted program focuses on water conservation through a water catchment design challenge and aquaponics lab. Gilbert faculty spent a year developing grade level projects to cover as many standards as possible. Teachers spent two years working with Jean Lomino, the former director of the Chattanooga Nature Center and founder of the Wahatchie School, a private outdoor preschool. Gilbert educators work closely with Southern Adventist University’s outdoor education faculty, and the school has had several teachers trained through Project WET and Project WILD. Gilbert offers a school-based health center, the closest pediatric care center within 35 miles, and has been awarded $650,000 yearly in ongoing funding for the clinic, which offers a wide variety of services to students and families, including medical, dental, mental health, nutrition and wellness, and assistance with social services.

Nearly 84 percent of Gilbert students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Gilbert also celebrates an annual Olympics and a family nutrition night. The school provides produce to the Care Mission, a food pantry used by many students’ families. In addition to lessons on growing plants, GES students participate in tastings, develop recipes, and cultivate tilapia and catfish in the aquaponics lab. Gilbert opened in 1993 and has made few alterations to the initial construction. As a result, one of the school’s successes was its energy reduction efforts through new policies and procedures, a new control system, an updated boiler and cooling tower, and gradually updating all lighting to LED over several years. All of these changes seemed small, but had a dramatic effect on resource consumption. Other behavioral changes by this school, such as in recycling, have had ripple effects at the district level. The school has gone paperless in grades three through five by using Google Classroom and Seesaw. Half of the school’s 21 acres are forested and the site includes a certified wildlife habitat. The school also has access to an additional 320 acres of forest surrounding the school-owned land.

Gilbert is one of four Georgia schools to win the honor.