Ahead of the Curve: 2015’s Green Ribbon School Winners

By Ariel Whitson|April 28, 2015

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education established the Green Ribbon Schools program. A step in the right direction towards a sustainable 21st century mindset, this program recognizes schools, districts and institutions of higher education that reduce their environmental impact, improve the health and wellness of staff and students, and provide effective environmental education to their students. The department defines an effective environmental education program as one that incorporates STEM, civic skills, and green career pathways.




Last week on Earth Day, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan officially announced the 2015 Green Ribbon School winners. They were chosen from candidates that were voluntarily nominated and then reviewed by 30 state education authority implementation teams. In the second step of selection, a team of several dozen federal reviewers reviewed states’ nominees. This year 58 schools, 14 districts, and nine postsecondary institutions were announced as winners. Below is an overview of three of California’s 2015 Green Ribbon School winners.

Los Cerritos Elementary School

The only elementary school winner is located in Long Beach with 43% of their students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. In 2000, the school built the Urban Farmyard, a garden that occupies an area approximately 60 feet by 80 feet. The garden boasts:

  • 22 raised beds utilized by all teachers and students K–3
  • Pathways made of decomposed granite
  • Borders of flowers and herbs
  • 6 fruit trees
  • Compost area
  • 9 hens, 6 rabbits, 1 rooster, 2 ducks and a guinea fowl




The goals of the garden include: connecting the garden to state standards and curriculum, encouraging students to make healthy food choices, encouraging character-building and community involvement, and instilling in students a love of the earth.

Carmel Middle School (CMS)

CMS is the only middle school in the Carmel Unified School District, and includes the 10 acre Hilton Bialek Habitat on its campus. The habitat is an environmental education center run by the non-profit MEarth. All sixth-grade students at CMS go through a six-week ecoliteracy curriculum—customized culinary and science-based programming for the school’s world language, science, history, and English-language arts classes.




CMS also has an active environmental club, which has led school wide education efforts around recycling and reduction of single-use plastics, and has worked with local business EcoCarmel to provide reusable lunch containers for every student.

The school has been making changes since 1990 to lessen its environmental impact, including:

  • Classrooms retrofitted with energy-efficient lighting, occupancy sensors, acoustical treatments and insulation, new HVAC systems, lead-free plumbing fixtures, and low-flow toilets
  • Demonstration solar panels on the green classroom produce approximately 5% of the energy used by the school, and CMS covers 19% of its electric needs through renewable energy purchased from Pacific Gas and Electric Company
  • Retention ponds constructed in the late 1990s hold stormwater runoff
  • In just one school year student paper consumption was cut in half through teachers distributing and receiving documents in electronic format using the assignment-management software program My School

Susan Miller Dorsey Senior High

Dorsey is located in south Los Angeles, with 80% of their students qualifying for free or reduced lunch. Through the Los Angeles Audubon Restoration Leadership Program, students from the urban core receive hands-on training in habitat restoration at the new Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook State Park and Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area. They go through a four-day restoration boot camp during the summer and are paid to help coordinate six community restoration events over the course of the school year. They also help develop and implement environmental curricula for elementary school students.




Dorsey also has an Eco-Club with over 50 active members that have implemented several recycling initiatives on campus. In 2011, a group of seven students wrote and illustrated Kill Your Lawn, a comic book to raise community awareness about the conservation value of replacing lawns with native plant species. In addition, The School of Business and Entrepreneurship’s culinary arts program hosts a WebTV cooking show called Cooking Live with Dorsey High. Their Turkey Chili Bean Delight recipe was lauded by USDA’s 2014 Recipe for Healthy Kids Challenge.

In 2013 and 2014, Dorsey teams participated in The Aspen Challenge. In this national competition, students are issued a seven-week challenge to offer solutions to pressing environmental issues. In 2013, Dorsey’s team was one of the six finalists with their interoperability community-student partnership strategy for raising environmental awareness. In 2014, Dorsey’s team designed a solar-powered trash compactor to reduce environmental impact.

These schools inspire and encourage others to think sustainably, and guide students towards a healthy lifestyle and the possibility of finding green careers for their futures. Ten Strands’ work furthers this endeavor by partnering with CalRecycle’s Office of Education and the Environment (OEE), as well as the California Department of Education, to support the infusion of the environment into subjects that are taught every day in schools such as science, history-social studies and English language arts.

For example, OEE’s EEI Curriculum represents a model for how to teach these subjects through an environmental lens and is taught at one of the Green Ribbon Schools mentioned above, Los Cerritos Elementary School. Explained on the OEE website this type of instruction “makes learning relevant and fun for students by engaging them in topics they care about – the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the food they eat. EEI helps students understand their relationship to the environment while preparing them to be critical thinkers and 21st century problem solvers.” To meet the environmental challenges of the 21st century, schools will need to continue engaging their communities through the power of youth so they are able to meet these challenges.

Ariel Whitson
This article was written by Ariel Whitson

Ariel Whitson has a background in finance, administration and event planning. She has over five years of experience working with nonprofits. Ariel started her career at the United Nations Association San Diego and Free the Slaves. She later served as a project coordinator at University Research Co., LLC in Washington D.C., where she oversaw the finance and administration of a $65 million USAID tuberculosis project in South Africa. She is passionate about working with youth, and spent a few years working as a tutor and camp counselor.