A group of kids plant trees

Students at Robert D. Johnson Elementary (Fort Thomas Independent) participate in the Eco Club, where they work to increase environmental awareness for positive change in the school and community. Submitted photo

Arlington Elementary School (Fayette County) and Robert D. Johnson Elementary School (Fort Thomas Independent) earned the U.S. Department of Education’s (USED’s) 2024 Green Ribbon Schools award for their creative efforts to lower utility costs and environmental impact, enhance health and wellbeing, and provide quality sustainability education.

The Green Ribbon Schools initiative is a federal recognition aimed at promoting school sustainability. The USED honors these organizations and draws attention to their work reducing environmental impact and cost; improving the health and wellness of students and staff; and providing effective environmental and sustainability education that incorporates science, technology, engineering math, civic skills and green career pathways.

Arlington Elementary and Robert D. Johnson Elementary are among 41 schools, 10 districts, three postsecondary institutions and one early learning center being honored this year across the country.

School demolition sparks Robert D. Johnson Elementary students’ focus on environmental sustainability

Jillian Booth, a 4th-grade teacher at Robert D. Johnson Elementary School, said the idea of becoming a “green school” came from students during the demolition of their nearly 100-year-old school building.

“We were in trailers on the high school campus, and there were a lot of students generating thoughts about where we were going and what was happening to our campus,” said Booth. “Behind the building were nature trails and in front of the building were multiple trees, nearly 200 years old, that our kids loved.”

Booth said when the students and staff found out they were demolishing the whole school, the children felt passionate about animals and how their environments were going to be impacted by all the construction.

“We put a deer camera behind the school to look at what animals were living back there. It was crazy; there were foxes, coyotes, rabbits and a ton of deer. That kind of spearheaded this whole environmental sustainability passion for our students,” said Booth.

The new building is now three years old, and the school has created a student-led composting program called the Eco Club. This club is an opportunity for students to increase environmental awareness for positive change in the school and community.

With sustainability in mind, Booth said their school has project-based learning opportunities focused on environmental education for students at every grade level. Projects include motivating and educating the school population about recycling and composting in the cafeteria, solving environmental problems and creating structures that provide shade for animals.

“The students in the club wanted to reduce not only the amount of litter but also the waste in general that our school was making. They started promoting more classroom recycling and making sure that every classroom had a recycling bin and started a campaign within the school,” said Booth.

The following year, Booth said club members created different stations in the cafeteria for students to drop off their plastics in the correct bins.

“We were able to reduce our waste from four 55-gallon garbage cans full of trash daily to the landfill to just one, which is huge,” said Booth.

Students have also worked to create a sustainable and energy-efficient school. For example, Booth said the school turned off the lights in the hallways and cafeteria when enough light was coming in through the windows to reduce energy consumption.

“Each Friday, we would commit to our classrooms for at least an hour with the lights out. It’s been exciting to see the progression over the years of how these ideas and students develop; it’s been a pretty cool experience,” said Booth.

In addition, students remind all staff to shut down electronics, unplug appliances and shut the blinds in classrooms to save energy.

Ashley Dikeos, principal at Robert D. Johnson Elementary School, said earning the Green Ribbon Schools award was a celebration not only for her staff and students but for Northern Kentucky as a community.

“It’s exciting to be one of the first in Northern Kentucky, in addition to only so many schools in the state of Kentucky, (to) have received (this award),” said Dikeos.

Arlington Elementary School focuses on schoolwide composting, transforming school garden into living laboratory

A group of people stand around a planted tree

Students from Arlington Elementary School (Fayette County) participate in a program called the Green Team which is an opportunity for students to explore seeds, animal habitats and the butterfly life cycle through hands-on work in the garden. Submitted photo.

Kristen Blaker, the art teacher and sustainability coordinator at Arlington Elementary School, said their students participate in a similar after-school program called the Green Team. This program creates an opportunity for students to explore seeds, animal habitats and the butterfly life cycle through hands-on work in the garden.

Blaker said that their elementary school garden is used as a living laboratory for students to gain environmental education, especially when it comes to composting.

“We are one of the only elementary schools in Fayette County that does schoolwide composting, and it has been a very efficient way for our students to learn about composting and the benefits of it for the plants,” said Blaker. “It takes all of the waste from being put into the dumpster because there is a fee for all of the trash, so it helps with the budget and taking trash that really shouldn’t be trashed because it can feed our garden.”

Blaker said it’s been a great opportunity to share the excitement with her students about learning and finding ways to improve their schools.

“Our Green Team has been working for about four-to-five years on building all of these sustainability efforts and infiltrating the school with these ideas,” said Blaker. “I’ve been able to see the inspiration behind this group; these students have inspired their teachers and other students. They’ve worked hard to create system sustainability to be just part of the outlook of the school through all the work they do.”

Through the garden, students can harvest, save seeds, compost and create products to sell in a wellness pop-up shop called Bubbles and Blooms. All proceeds go back into the school garden.

“Students create lavender bath salts, calendula hand salve and lip balm using dehydrated orange peels for scent,” said Blaker. “They make candles with essential oils and pressed flowers from the garden; they even save seeds and sell seed packets of their favorite flowers.”

Students in the Green Team also do energy audits every week to check to see if lights are left on in empty rooms. If students find that a classroom has its lights left on, they write a note to the teacher in that classroom as a gentle reminder. This has helped their whole school, Blaker said to be more energy efficient and give students a sense of responsibility.

“The students feel empowered because they get to check in on the classes and leave a little check sheet stating whether the recycling bin was contaminated or there were lights left on in the room,” said Blaker. “They know that they are leaders in the school in this charge, and instead of coming from another adult, these reminders are coming from the students.”

The Kentucky Environmental Education Council is the nominating board for Kentucky’s Green Ribbon Schools.