"Ensuring that students are environmentally literate by the time they graduate is a matter of good citizenship, making sure they have a good education and preparing them for the jobs of the 21st century," said John McGrath, a Department of Education spokesman. "We hope that by encouraging them through this competition, more and more schools will get involved and reach the high bars we are setting."
Schools would be nominated by state education departments and judged by how well they achieve a wide range of environmental goals, that include:
Teaching environmental concepts to students and encouraging them to carry out environmental projects that affect their communities.
Keeping energy use low, recycling, and using green energy sources.
Creating a healthful school environment, including promoting fitness and good nutrition for students and staff.
Educators in the area who have worked to set up green programs said they welcomed the initiative.
"It's a great idea," said Joseph Mudd, a teacher in the Lower Merion School District's Gifted Support Program at Penn Valley Elementary School and a cofounder of the district's Green Council. "Not only is there a built-in science piece, but there is a social studies angle as well - how we can best act as citizens of the world."
Many Lower Merion schools have environmental programs that fit well with the Green Ribbon criteria, Mudd said, including solar panels at Penn Valley, sophisticated energy and water-management systems at the two high schools, robust recycling, and a "green chemical" school-cleaning program.
Still, there is much to be done in Lower Merion and elsewhere, he said, adding, "I think it will open some doors for teachers and administrators who are interested in the environment" to move forward with new projects.
Other districts that have implemented a variety of environmental initiatives - including Radnor, West Chester, and Upper Merion - also say they like the idea.
Radnor has two green schools that feature low energy use and that lessen their environmental impact through, for example, using plants on the middle school roof to reduce storm-water runoff and produce oxygen.
Students at West Chester's Henderson High School used a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant to reach out to local business owners, helping them conduct energy audits and reduce their power consumption.
In New Jersey, John Henry, a founder of the Green Schools Leadership Institute, part of the Educational Information and Resource Center, an educational-service provider based in South Jersey, said, "It's good that they are finally recognizing these efforts on a federal level."
Not everyone is happy with the proposal. Matthew Brouillette, head of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative Pennsylvania policy advocacy group that favors a limited role for the federal government in education, said in an e-mail that the Green Ribbon Schools program "has nothing to do with reading, writing, and arithmetic, [and is being created] merely to advance a political agenda with zero real educational value."
Mudd said he disagreed. "We've come to realize there has to be an end to consuming the way we do," he said. "Everybody is going to live their whole lives on this planet; we need to think about sustainability in the years and decades to come. It affects us all."
Measures for a Green Ribbon
The U.S. Department of Education plans to launch its Green Ribbon schools recognition program next year. Nominated schools will be judged in three categories:
Environmental impact and energy efficiency
Have they reduced greenhouse gas emissions, increased energy efficiency, and created or bought renewable and low environmental impact energy?
Healthy school environments
Are health and safety maximized in school design, construction, renovation, operations, and maintenance? Are there high-quality nutrition and fitness programs for students and staff?
Environmental and sustainability education
Are schools teaching environmental concepts to students so they develop "knowledge and thinking skills to prepare graduates for the 21st-century technology-driven economy?"
The proposal is outlined in www.Ed.gov/blog under "Green Ribbon Schools."
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education
Contact staff writer Dan Hardy at 215-854-2612, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @DanInq on Twitter.