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School nabs state first Green Flag

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Mary Rieke students and faculity proudly display their 'Green Flag'Rieke Elementary School in Southwest Portland has long prided itself for being a green school.

Now it’s got the national cred to prove it.

On Sept. 7, Rieke became Oregon’s first school to receive a coveted Green Flag Award, the highest honor of the National Wildlife Federation’s Eco-Schools USA Program.

“The commitment of the school, the teachers and the staff, the principal ... there’s dedication here that is unique,” said Courtney Sullivan of the National Wildlife Federation, presenting the Green Flag at a school assembly to students in Rieke’s EcoThink Club.

Credit goes to the club members and to Jamie Repasky, a mother of two Rieke students who volunteers as the EcoThink coordinator.

One project was to gather all the food waste generated in one day. It turned out to be what Repasky called “kindergarten-sized” — 40 pounds’ worth.

“The kids were just livid about it,” Repasky says. “They were just like, there is an apple with one bite; how can you do this?”

The exercise taught the students to take only the food they plan to eat during lunch. Eventually, they convinced the district to outfit the cafeteria with napkin dispensers and optional forks and spoons, instead of distributing individual packets featuring a spork, napkin and straw to each student.

While studying biodiversity, Rieke students planted a different tree for every class at the school.

Students showed a passion and curiosity that many adults could use, Repasky says. “In their minds, you can do anything.”

Much like the youngsters in the EcoThink Club, Repasky was inspired by an older mentor, Jeanne Roy, who leads the Agent of Change program designed to encourage participants like Repasky to become environmental leaders.

“Jamie Repasky has been a dynamo in transforming the operations and eco-awareness of Mary Rieke School,” Roy says.

A hallmark of the Eco-Schools USA program is its 11 pathways to sustainability: energy, water, climate change, global dimensions, transportation, school grounds, consumption and waste, healthy living, healthy schools, biodiversity and food. Rieke concentrated on energy, biodiversity and consumption and waste.

To earn the coveted Green Flag, a school must:

n establish an Eco-Action Team

n conduct an environmental audit

n develop an Eco-Action Plan based on audit results

n link the Eco-Schools program into the school’s curriculum and engage other students

n involve the community

n create an Eco-Code stating the school’s environmental values

n provide school staff with professional development on best practices in environmental education

n provide cost-benefit analysis for each project

Sullivan says younger kids often can connect with environmental improvements on a deeper level.

“They’re still fascinated by bugs and by dirt,” she says. “That means that their heart is open to just have a sense of wonder and exploration ... or to care.”

It’s getting easier for Oregon schools to go green now, since Eco-Schools USA partnered with Oregon Green Schools, a nonprofit that helps schools with waste reduction and resource efficiency programs.

“Now, when a school signs up to be with either of our programs, they’ll be enrolling in both programs,” Sullivan says.

Though Portland Public Schools seems perpetually strapped for money, going green can help.

“Recycling, composting, just starting to teach the students about reducing their waste, all these can be really easy steps and they cost no money to start, but they instantly save the school money,” Sullivan says. There’s also long-term payoffs. “Working with students is the best way to create lifelong environmental stewards.”