Local schools accept the challenge to try to become greener | VailDaily.com

Local schools accept the challenge to try to become greener

Fourth- and fifth-graders take part in sustainability field studies programs. where they learn about alternative forms of energy.
Special to the Daily |

EDWARDS — Wrapping up the 2013-14 school year, Edwards Elementary is well on its way to becoming an “Eco-School.” After classes let out and teachers were packing up for the summer, several freshly graduated fourth- and fifth-grade students poked their heads into one classroom and asked a teacher, “May I help you ‘unplug’ for the summer?”

Several months into learning about energy efficiency, the members of the Edwards Elementary Eco-Action Team knew that simple actions like turning off lights and unplugging electronics and appliances for the summer months could make a big difference for their school. These student leaders created an action plan to reduce the school’s energy use and hopefully save money through the practice. They worked with school district facility managers and administrators to create a “summer shutdown” list for teachers and then came back after the last day of school to remind teachers to close their blinds, shut down computers, and unplug monitors and refrigerators. In the fall, the Eco-Action Team will review the school’s electricity bills to determine if their efforts resulted in reduced energy use and financial savings for their school.

Eagle County School District Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services Mike Gass sees the benefit of this type of learning.

“Any time we can link education and good stewardship of our resources, we need to do it,” he said. “What I think this type of program does is personalize the behaviors of our students and staff to do the right thing. It is really environmental character education.”

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The steps Edwards Elementary is taking to reduce its environmental impact and conserve energy is part of a larger Youth Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability initiative by Walking Mountains Science Center, generously supported by an Echo grant from Vail Resorts. Through this partnership, Walking Mountains is reaching out and providing support to any Eagle Valley K-12 school that wants to go through the process to earn a bronze, silver or green Eco-Schools award. The internationally recognized Eco-Schools curriculum, hosted by the National Wildlife Federation, provides a framework that “strives to make environmental awareness and action an intrinsic part of the life and culture of a school, including students, teachers, administrative staff, non-teaching staff and parents, as well as the local community.”

Walking Mountains Youth Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability coordinator Cindy Tibble and Fritz Bratschie, the environmental manager at Beaver Creek, have been working since February to recruit local schools and launch the Eco-Schools curriculum throughout the Eagle Valley. The program’s seven steps include: establish an Eco-Action team, perform an environmental review/audit of the school, develop an Eco-Action plan, monitor and evaluate progress, link to educational curriculum, involve the entire school and local community and create an “Eco-Code,” or a mission statement. Schools can focus on one or more of 10 sustainability pathways including biodiversity, climate change, consumption and waste, energy, healthy living, healthy schools, school grounds, sustainable food, transportation and water.

Challenge Accepted

In the first year, Edwards and Avon elementary schools accepted the challenge to engage their students and staff in creating more sustainable schools. They both chose to focus on the “energy” pathway since it provides plenty of opportunities for students to make a difference, as well as the inherent financial incentive that comes with making buildings more energy efficient.

“Our Edwards Elementary School Student Council members were very excited to incorporate Eco-Schools into our school this past year,” said Principal Heidi Hanssen. “The students conducted an energy audit and presented energy saving ideas to their classmates and the staff. They felt great ownership and pride in bringing energy saving ideas to our school.”

In the evaluation of all 2,300 schools participating in Eco-Schools nationwide, the National Wildlife Federation found in 2012 that participating schools saved an average of 20 percent on their energy bills over 2010 usage levels mainly through no-cost operations and behavior changes. This added up to $50 million in saved energy costs for the year and a reduction of 53 million pounds of CO2. For local schools, significant energy consumers in the valley that spend over $1 million on energy costs annually, this could mean big savings.

This program is made possible by Walking Mountains’ vision for sustainability in the Eagle Valley and generous financial support from Vail Resorts. Markian Feduschak, executive director of Walking Mountains, believes this new program is a great complement to the organization’s existing field science programs.

“We are excited about the new student learning and leadership opportunities presented by Eco-Schools,” he said. “It provides the opportunity for students to make a significant difference in their local school community and gain a better understanding of national and global environmental concerns, all while saving natural resources and money for Eagle County Schools.”

Next year, the Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy will join the Eco-Schools effort along with a handful of other interested schools and turn their buildings into learning laboratories for sustainability. With their help, Eco-Schools will take the steps to empower students to grow as leaders, apply academic knowledge to solve real-world challenges and move our schools and community toward a greener future.

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