Three Wisconsin schools gained recognition from the federal government for their excellence in promoting a healthy and environmentally sustainable learning environment.

The U.S. Department of Education issued the first Green Ribbon School awards to a total of 78 institutions in the country, spanning across 29 states.

Dimensions of Learning Academy in Kenosha, Middleton High School near Madison and Purdy Elementary School in Fort Atkinson were recognized with the awards.

According to a statement from the department, Green Ribbon Schools demonstrate ways to provide students with real-world skill sets, cut school costs and provide healthy “green” initiatives. 

Principal Denise Herrmann of Middleton High School said she was greatly honored by the recognition and believes a myriad of initiatives helped the school in attaining the reward.

“It was not just one thing that made our application so strong,” Herrmann said. “We showed just how we do things, not a one-shot plan.”

According to Herrmann, the application asked for information in three main categories: environmental and sustainability literacy, net zero environmental impact and health and performance of students and staff.

With the three pillars as guidelines, Herrmann said Middleton High School presented strong evidence of “green” initiatives in all criteria, including community outreach programs as well as environmental building and construction measures. 

“Pretty much every category that they asked us to present, we were able to say that we used the most ecologically friendly methods possible,” Herrmann said.

Herrmann attributed such success to the work and participation of the students and teachers and said he believes other districts in Wisconsin are on the same path toward recognition.

According to Herrmann, although some of the initial costs may be a setback, the long-term rewards have been showing positive results in the school’s budget.

“I think many other schools are on the same journey,” Herrmann said. “Maybe the initial cost is more costly and time consuming. However, with all of the things that it has done in long run, we have saved us money. That is a benefit that other schools can recognize.”

More than 350 schools nationwide completed the application to their state education agencies for the Green Ribbon School program recognition. 

The University of Wisconsin, although not eligible for the Green Ribbon program because it is an institution of higher education, has been implementing its own “green” initiatives.

According to Director of Campus Sustainability Operations Faramarz Vakili, UW has reduced its carbon footprint by 20 percent during the past four years under the We Conserve program.  

“The university has a pretty assertive program for sustainability in We Conserve,” Vakili said. “As far as the university is concerned, our programs are recognized as the leaders in terms of being green.”

UW environmental sociology professor Noah Feinstein said many Wisconsin schools are working to become more sustainable. 

However, he said getting financing for these “green” initiatives may be the biggest challenge facing the school.

“This is a tough budgetary time for schools and many districts are making difficult choices about what to invest in,” Feinstein said. “I hope that this recognition will encourage them to make sustainability a priority.”