JEFFERSON — The State of Wisconsin has recognized West Elementary School in Jefferson as a “Green and Healthy School.”
The school, which has had an established school garden and walking path and which has been part of a concerted energy efficiency initiative on the part of the district, skipped right over the “sprout” and “seeding” designations to earn the third-level “sapling” honor.
The award was presented on Earth Day, April 22.
“We are proud to be recognized by the state for this environmental education award,” said Mike Howard, West principal. “We will continue to work on projects such as our walking path and our garden to promote lifetime wellness to our students.”
Green and Healthy Schools Wisconsin recognizes schools that nurture healthy kids and sustainable communities.
The designation, which can be earned by any qualifying public or private school serving students from pre-kindergartners through high school seniors, considers achievement in nine focus areas: community involvement, energy efficiency, environmental and sustainability education, environmental health (including indoor air quality and chemical management,) health and wellness initiatives, recycling and waste management, and school site and transportation considerations.
The state award is associated with the U.S. Department of Education’s “Green Ribbon Schools” program.
Congratulating the school on its achievement, Victoria Rydberg, Green and Healthy Schools Wisconsin representative, said, “West Elementary is on a journey that will continue to reduce its environmental impact and related costs, improve health and wellness and increase environmental and sustainability literacy.”
Tim Graffin, buildings and grounds director for the Jefferson schools, said that all of the elements for West to earn the designation were already in place.
The school garden — an outdoor resource used by many of the school classrooms, the kids’ gardening club, summer school classes and the after-school program — was one major factor.
Students plan, plant, tend and harvest, under the supervision of teachers and of volunteers from the Jefferson County Master Gardeners program.
“None of this would have happened without the Master Gardeners, who have given countless hours over the past decade to help students learn about gardening and nutrition,” Graffin said.
Mike Hotter, a longtime Master Gardeners volunteer who has worked with students in the West garden since it was established around a decade ago, said it has been great to see students learn and grow through this hands-on experience.
Karen Healy Raatz, a more recent volunteer with the Master Gardeners, said that the school garden provides many great lessons students can use throughout their lifetimes.
“Through the ‘We Grow’ garden club, students learn a lot about nutrition, not just how to grow plants,” she said. “They get to grow and then taste their own produce. They even get to choose what they grow, going through the seed catalog and voting on what to plant,” she said.
“I’ve seen students who started out in the garden as kindergartners come back as middle schoolers,” Hotter said. “Some of them start their own gardens at home.”
The garden also provides students a chance to work with others of different ages and to learn leadership.
Finally, during this trying pandemic year, it has provided a welcome opportunity to get students outside and into the fresh air, which is important for their physical and mental health.
Another big asset at West is the Pope Path walking loop, which has given students, staff and community members another accessible fitness option.
The path has become a favorite stop for teachers looking to get in a little exercise before school begins or to unwind after a long day of teaching. The path, named after former teacher Nancy Pope who passed away in the middle of the school year in 2017 after being diagnosed with a fast-acting cancer, has also served as a central location for many school activities and celebrations.
Meanwhile, on the energy efficiency front, West has made big strides in recent years. Some of the improvements have included window and door replacements and new boilers to replace outmoded, much less efficient ones.
“We’ve really worked to reduce our environmental impact and improve energy efficiency,” Graffin said. “It’s part of our promise to our taxpayers to be good stewards — to use their money wisely and to maintain our buildings the way they need to be.”
He cited the Jefferson schools’ extremely high Energy Star ratings, despite the age of some of the buildings, West included.
The district’s energy efficiency projects, some of which carry an initial cost up front, actually wind up saving the district money into the future, he noted.
As to chemical use, Graffin said that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and schools were charged with really heightening their cleaning and disinfection practices, he chose to forgo toxic traditional chemicals and to go with natural cleaners instead.
Graffin gave a shout-out to the former buildings and grounds director of the Fort Atkinson school district, Dennis Kuchenmeister, who served as a real inspiration to Graffin as the Fort district worked toward national Green and Healthy Schools honors several years ago.
“Dennis was a huge influence in Green and Healthy Schools in this area,” Graffin said.
He said he’d like to see the Jefferson district follow this example, continuing to make improvements on all levels to eventually earn the national-level designation.
Graffin said he hopes to work with the new curriculum director, who starts in July, on the educational/curricular piece, to build on what West and the other Jefferson schools are already doing in the area of environmental and sustainability education.
In talking with people with young children, he said he’s heard what they want most out of their children’s schools is a healthy, clean place where students will be able to learn.
“My goal is to make this district a beacon in terms of healthy and green schools,” Graffin said. “We are on the path to doing some really great things for the School District of Jefferson, creating healthy environments and making our schools great places to learn and to have fun.”