Green Energy: Motivation and Focus

At some point in February 2011, I put a small box next to my classroom door and started placing recyclable materials into it. The materials included paper, milk containers and water bottles. At the end of the week, the makeshift recycling box went home with me and its contents were dumped into my personal recycling container. After a few weeks, I had enough. I have been working at my Midwestern urban elementary school for a few months now, after moving from New York City, and I felt that as a public servant, the least I could do was recycle at work. Instead of accepting the lack of recycling at my school, I decided to talk directly with the head engineer and find a solution.

It began with the question, “What can I do to help create a recycling system at our school?”

There are many ways to “go green.” There are a plethora of examples of schools and districts that are working to reduce their environmental impact while educating their communities about the sustainability challenges of the 21st century. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education piloted a prestigious Green Ribbon Award to publicly recognize the outstanding work that is being done by schools. For one small urban public elementary school located in one of the highest poverty areas in Omaha, the road to accepting this award can provide an example of how all schools can become healthier, safer and easier on the environment.

Where it starts

The budget shortfalls and financial reality faced by the Omaha Public Schools district (OPS) has created the opportunity to embrace concepts behind sustainability. In 2009, the assistant superintendent for Business Services at OPS collaborated with the Verdis Group to develop an Energy Action Plan. The plan was to increase efficiency and identify specific strategies related to resource conservation and becoming a greener, healthier district, thus saving hundreds of thousands of dollars and reducing the district’s impact on the environment. In 2010, the Verdis Group became the district’s sustainability coordinator and designed the Green School Initiative (GSI), focusing on implementation of the strategies contained in the Energy Action Plan.

Several committees were formed to support the Green School Initiative, including a Core Committee, established to provide guidance and institutional support to the entire district and give direction by establishing the communication strategy, setting goals and measuring the progress and outcomes of the Green School Initiative. The Core Committee was comprised of individuals who volunteered to serve as the advisory board to GSI, such as teachers and administrators within OPS, as well as members of the community and local technical experts.

In the beginning of the academic year of 2011, to help provide assistance and maintain consistent communication to the entire district, the GSI Coordination Team introduced the Green Chronicle newsletter, a monthly newsletter updating schools and stakeholders about goals, strategies and challenges developed to support the initiative.


In March 2011, after being tired of hauling my school recycling materials home, and following my conversation with our engineer about establishing a recycling program at our school, I was directed to the principal of the Verdis Group. He invited me to join the Core Committee and learn more about how to support the initiative at my school. I began attending monthly meetings through the summer, and when the 2011-2012 academic year began, I invited members of the Verdis Group to visit my school and discuss the direction of the district directly with the principal of the school. Together, we began brainstorming the establishment of a Green Team and plan for the best ways to incorporate the district-wide Green School Initiative goals at our school.

The support for the Green Team was immediate and enthusiastic. Students, teachers and faculty members expressed full support for a recycling program, and several joined the newly formed Green Team. First, our principal signed the Go Green Pledge with student council members. We then removed all space heaters, refrigerators, microwaves, coffee pots and so on that existed in classrooms, and purchased two large refrigerators and microwaves for the teachers’ lounge. We also requested a recycling dumpster to be delivered to our school, and a recycling program (led by students from student council, the 4th grade teacher and head of student council, our engineer and myself) was designed and implemented.

Every classroom and office received a blue recycling container, a recycling sign to hang above the container and a set of stickers reminding everyone to shut off lights, shut off computer monitors and so on. Every Friday, two students and I walked throughout the school collecting the recycled materials and placing them in a separate dumpster. We also developed several green videos to share with the school on our “Simba News,” a morning program on the internal media station.

In February 2012, we began the application process for the Green Ribbon Award. By this point, my school had already reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 72 percent and its water use by 19 percent, earning the highest Energy Star (92) rating for any Omaha public school. Led by the Green School Initiative, the school community was diligent in pursuing energy performance improvements through a series of equipment and operational changes such as our geothermal system, installed in 2002, which resulted in a dramatic reduction in energy consumption.

The school also went through a process of relamping the entire building, in 2009, which allowed us to change internal policies on which lights were on and off at specific times of the day. Finally, the building’s management system was also being used to regulate temperature setbacks, monitor energy consumption and troubleshoot potential issues that arise. Each grade level learned about the environment through social studies and science curriculum based on state standards and teachers provided hands-on learning experiences for all students, as well as interactive fieldtrips and project-based learning, particularly in these curricular areas.

Green energy

In his book, The Green Collar Economy, Van Jones describes the new green wave as an “investment” wave powerful enough to change the world. As of May 2012, the Omaha Public Schools district was spending nearly $250,000 less than it did in August 2009 when it started tracking Energy Star ratings. Even more impressive is that expenses are almost $1 million less than the peak spending in September 2010 and over $750,000 less than January 2011.

In June 2012, several of the Green Team members — both adults and students — traveled with the school’s principal to Washington, D.C., to accept the Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Award. The trip was a validation that we were on the right path.

In the coming academic year, my school’s staff, students and community will continue to work together to produce an energy efficient, sustainable and healthy school environment and work together to ensure the environmental literacy of all our students. With this prestigious recognition, our work has only just began, and we are moving forward with the district’s Green School Initiative to strive towards improving our environmental impact and creating a healthier place to learn and work. 

Ron Azoulay is a reading coach at Miller Park Elementary in Omaha, Neb., and a doctoral candidate (Ed.D.) in Educational Administration at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.